In the Land of Ice and Snow

Although I could not quite bring myself to name the dream country I wrote about in the last post, I can say this: it is curiously reminiscent of the landscape of my father's childhood and I think perhaps that when I go there I am not so much wandering in my own hypnogeography as in his; if such a thing can be. There is another dream country I visit that is more my own - the mountain that stands over the town in which I grew up. I went there last night. In this incarnation the mountain was vast as ever, more conical than in fact it is, and I was toiling past oddly shaped granite outcrops, through snow and ice, heading upwards around the bulge of the peak towards an alpine lake that was always just around the bend. Along the way I found a lost archive assembled by previous explorers, amongst which there were many open receptacles full of moulded figures like dolls that were in themselves examples of various forms of cultural miscegenation. In their mixed expressions meanings were expressed, for instance the bitterness of racial hatred combined with the self-contempt such feelings can engender. And, at the other end of the scale, the exaltation of true understanding along with dread insight into the arcana of sorcery. I can still see some of these wizened faces, with their wild and tangled black hair, like something from the profligate pen of an artist (Tony Fomison comes to mind; and Ralph Hotere) uninhibited by previous or protected views of the way ahead. The same man who'd made the dolls, I learned as I went on (I could now see silver glints from the lake ahead) had published many pamphlets and these too lay before me in laminated stacks that I was avid to sort through. But there was no time so instead, not without trepidation, I took one to read later and went on towards that seductive silver lake. Some ghostly interlocutor intervened at this point and I turned back from the lake's shores to speak with him. I think I was trying to justify taking the pamphlet, and in so doing pointed out that my own father's book was included with those others in the archive of explorers' journals. I found his thesis and opened it up; learning to my surprise that it was a four volume work, not the actual single book in only three extant copies, one of which I own. I cannot now recall volumes 2 and 3 but #4, which was smaller, contained poems he had written that had certain affinities with the moulded doll-like figures mentioned above. In other words my father's poems, which were structured like a family tree, gave voice to those who had no other, to the silent and forgotten among us, those who lived and died and left no record of their activities and experiences. He had somehow extracted the memories of these forgotten ones from the recall of those who had left account of themselves behind; and although his poems were made of words, as poems are, I could also sense between or behind the lines the actual faces of these unknown ones. I say this is a place I have visited before and so it is; but this is the first time I have been allowed to look into the archives contained there, high up on the mountain, on the shores of the silver lake, among the ice and the snow and the whistling wind.



lost horizon

There's a place I keep going back to in dreams. It is a land between two ranges of hills, the sea to the north, the sea to the south, and a complex pattern of creeks and ponds and lakes threading the flat green plains which are not uninhabited but not populous either. I can remember specific parts of this dream geography: a long, narrow apartment under a house on the eastern flank of the western hills where I lived and to which I have since tried to return - though only to recover elements of the library I lost when I moved precipitately away from there. In the shadow of the eastern hills I once, many years before, embarked on an expedition with my youngest sister, in quest of what precisely I cannot now say, if I ever knew; but I remember, as we made our way north through the blue ponds and the green marshes, that we came to a place where the colours bled from the landscape, the features of the map we were on faded to white, surmise replaced navigation . . . in the way of such things I cannot return there except involuntarily, neither will nor desire is enough, and so those parts of the country I have not yet explored remain unknown though I can sometimes sense their contours. Now I think that when I have flying dreams it is always this land that I am flying above; and when I crash, as inevitably I do, it is here that I fall to earth - except that I always wake just before hitting the ground. Where is this place? After a conversation I had yesterday with a friend who lives across the road, during which the question of hypnogeography was raised, and I told him about this place, and he asked me where it is . . . suddenly I thought I knew. And then, just as suddenly, thought I must never say. Even writing this bare outline down here now makes me fear that I will not again be allowed to visit this land between two seas, this green valley amongst low craggy hills, this placeless place, this shangri-la that I feel I know in my bones as much as I do in my dreaming mind.



another view of the lakes of titan

. . . that's Kraken Mare to the left of Ligeia Mare and the smaller lake to the north is called Punga Mare (Maori Latin); while elsewhere, but I don't know where, is Mayda Insula, named after the legendary island in the North Atlantic ocean on our beleaguered planet . . .


titanic sailing

One of the places
on the world wide web I like sometimes to go is the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature. There you will find, among much else, that the geographical feature pictured above is called Ligeia Mare, a hydrocarbon lake towards the north of the northern hemisphere of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Ligeia Mare is about 500 km in breadth and has a sister lake, Kraken Mare; they are fed by rivers that wash down valleys whenever it rains - huge pools of methane, ethane, propane and (probably) other hydrocarbon compounds which remain liquid in the frigid Titanian temperatures. NASA's epochal probe, Cassini, has photographed sunlight flashing from Ligeia Mare (see below) and its Huygens lander in 2005 reached the surface of Titan near the equator, sending back a picture of some orange rocks; now there is proposal to land some kind of craft on, or in, one of the methane lakes. Boating on Titan . . .


Authenticity is the abiding perversion of our times. It is indulged as a vice, worshipped as a fetish, embraced as a virtue. Like a deity it is pervasive, rapacious, and demanding: authenticity is the underwriter of history and culture, the guarantor of social legitimacy and personal integrity; it is the theorist of truth. Everything it touches turns to gold - or is at least burnished with a scrape of lustre - and in that sense it is the mark of genius, the Midas touch, the apotheosis of capitalism.

As a vehicle of thought and critical idiom, authenticity carries to the very heart of culture the aesthetics of Romantic authorship - the conceits of genius, creativity, and especially that of originality . . . in doing so it carries falsehood and fraudulence there as well. This is a straightforward ideological contradiction . . . that maintains the primacy of the authentic and so authenticity shimmers rather than falls. Hence the streets are packed with counterfeit goods; the galleries are replete with forged paintings and the archives threaded with fraudulent documents; copyright law is entranced by the worldwide web; a sheep is cloned (and neatly turns out to be a fake); resting actors find work posing as citizens on television chat shows, documentaries are revealed to be staged fictions or, perhaps worse, comedy shows; a troupe of imposters don clerical vestments and charitably cock their ears to confession; Faux Art is cooed over by faux women; prize-winning authors shrug off accusations of plagiarism; theme parks replace museums and the cinema rewrites history; credit card fraud is booming; and on the internet and elsewhere, everywhere, identities are blurred, swapped, falsified, multiplied, invented, dissolved.

The thirst for authenticity is nowise slaked by this superfluity of copies. Jeans and software now carry the same security measures as paper money - from signatures to holograms - false signs; artists make cults of themselves and register as trademarks; television turns to protracted fly-on-the-wall documentary soap operas; the issue-memoir becomes the degree-zero of literature, judged primarily not by quality of writing but by the truth of the writer's testimony; politicians cock-a-doodle-do their personal provenance to confirm policy and win votes.

In art criticism, the authentic becomes the synonym for taste . . .

from The Forger's Shadow : How Forgery Changed the Course of Literature, by Nick Groom (Picador, 2002), p 292-3



the nelson mail


chalk & cheese


I was on a two day visit to Auckland for reasons that were both specific and unknown: some kind of business. While there I went to the art gallery and saw a Philip Clairmont painting that I'd never encountered before. It was a floor painting: not painted on the floor but spread out upon it and designed to be viewed in that way. Irregularly shaped, like a jigsaw piece or something torn from a map perhaps. At first sight abstract, patterned, rather more like a late Jackson Pollock, which were of course painted on the floor before being hung up on the wall. I remember repeated motifs of red and black bars. A curator, who was in fact an art gallery owner I met here in Sydney a week or two back, told me this was one of two (I never saw the other) and pointed out that there were figurative elements to the painting: concealed profile portraits of women in Phil's life, a quite startling bird's-eye view of the city, in black and white, that recalled the 1974 War Requiem #9, The Destruction of Germany, which has in it collaged elements from a book called Early Engravings of German Towns. There were a few people lounging around the painting, stretched out on the floor and with some surprise I realised that Phil was among them - even though he died in 1984, knowledge of his death was not part of the dream. I went and sat down next to him, we exchanged greetings and he asked me to come and visit him at home. A few hour's conversation with you will keep me going for weeks, he said. When I said that because of other commitments I wasn't able to do that, he took from his pocket a small pair of scissors and said, with a crooked sort of grin, Oh, well, I'll have to try the van Gogh solution then. While it didn't look likely that he'd be able to cut off any part of his ear with the small plastic handled scissors, I still insisted on taking them from him. Later in the dream, after I'd left the gallery, I realised that I'd also taken a small plastic sachet of white powder which I knew to be speed. I started going back, to return Phil his drugs, but then in a doorway paused. The seal on the sachet was faulty and some of the grains had escaped onto my fingers. I rubbed the gritty white powder onto my gums, fearfully tempted to keep the sachet and take all the speed myself.


I had discovered a formula, perhaps a spell, whereby I could make the right word appear in the empty white space previously apportioned to it. Enthralled by this new skill, I began to practise it, watching delightedly as a series of words, all nouns I believe, were conjured into view; but then the telephone rang (the real telling bone), waking me up. And in the waking I lost cognisance of what exactly this formula, or spell, or technique, consists of. All I had left in memory was the last of the half dozen or so words I had called up: Emmental or Emmentaler; Swiss cheese.

Image : Study for Head, Philip Clairmont, 1970 (?)

addenda : peacocks are so vain


Glen Oak Farm

pics by the redoubtable Maggie Hall



The first step is to release breath from the inflated lobes of the lungs into the branched tubing of the respiratory system. The main channel, the trachea, is about eight inches long, rigid and segmented, a conduit for the breath toward the vocal cords, those twin infoldings of mucous membrane stretched horizontally across the larynx. They are thin muscular flaps, reminiscent of labia, that block the top of the trachea; when we breath, these flaps are loose; when we want to speak, they form a barrier by pressing together and sealing off the throat from the breath, which accumulates until the pressure becomes intense enough to release the cords - not all at once but fluidly, periodically, in a rippling motion. As the breath makes its dash upwards, the pressure below the vocal cords decreases, they seal again. More breath creates more pressure, another release point is reached, the pressure drops, the cords seal and so on in a rapid alternating dance of advance and retreat . . . in addition to the vocal cords, the respiratory system has a series of muscles, the depressor anguli oris, the posterior cricoarytenoid, the sternocleidomastoid, whose purpose is to manipulate the flow of breath as it passes out of the body. And then of course there are the tongue and the teeth and the lips. After crossing the lips, the breath collides with the air outside, its energy transforming into molecular movement. The air molecules in front of the mouth compress and open in pulses tuned to our words. These pulses travel forwards and outwards . . . if there is an ear handy, its pinna - those folds of cartilage that jut out from the sides of the head - will capture these pulses, this voice, and direct it into the auditory canal, where it will gain speed until it collides with the taut sheath of flesh called the tympanic membrane, or ear drum. The membrane booms, it vibrates and echoes, mimicking the complex vibrations of the air. Beyond lie three ossicles, little bones that rest lightly against each other so that the movement of one causes movement in the next. The hammer (malleus) strikes the anvil (incus) that strikes the stirrup (stapes) that strikes the cochlea - like a pin striking a bell. Very little energy is lost. The cochlea is snail-shell-shaped, hair-lined, fluid-filled. A spiralled, hollow, conical chamber of bone. Here molecular movement is converted to electricity, as the movement of fluid within the shell causes the hairs along its twisting length to vibrate. This vibration in turn stimulates the slender cells of the auditory nerve, the pathway to the brain, which transports the electrical signal of speech across the axons of its component neurons into that upper section of the brain known as the primary auditory cortex. This absorbs the incoming electrical impulses, somehow converting them into the comprehension of a voice. The exchange, from the lungs of the speaker to the brain of the listener, takes about one second to complete; but it is only a prologue. A voice does not begin its true existence until after the brain of the hearer has absorbed and converted the electrical signals of the neurons. We copy the external signal, discard the original and then remake the copy in our own image, based on the meaning the voice has for us. We mould and remould the voice over and over again, the copy deviating from the original that produced it and at the same time becoming inseparable from what it is stimulating. A voice has spoken and we have heard.

(Adapted from Daniel E Smith : Muses, Madmen and Prophets - Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity. Smith's own account depends upon Brian Moore's An Introduction to the Psychology of Hearing and a website: www.voice-center.com which, he laments, no longer exists in the form in which it was when he accessed it.)



surrealism in ashfield

Yesterday in the Ashfield library I felt the earth move. I was sitting in one of the courtesy seats looking at a book on Surrealism. Great book, wish I'd borrowed it now. It wasn't the writing, it wasn't the pictures of the artworks, it was the photographs - excellent b & w pics of all the main suspects, including the women. Especially the women. I've just read Ruth Brandon's wonderful Surreal Lives, whose only defect might be a paucity of pictures of the people she's writing and you're reading about. Elsa Triolet, Helena Diakanova . . . and more. And then the earth moved. I'd just come off a heavy three day stint driving, 1 pm to 11 pm or thereabouts; five or six hour sleeps, left over adrenaline still coursing through my veins, the peculiar ear thing I still have that manifests as a feeling that at any moment I am about to pitch forward onto my face . . . but don't. Or will I? So I thought, whoa! This is worse than usual, am I about to come to grief? Laid the book down and sat still for a mo'. No-one else seemed alert or alarmed, it must have been just me. Picked up the book again . . . there it was again, a definite lurch. I felt the beginnings of panic, manifest in the thought: I need to lie down, how will I get home? Didn't bring the car, it's a kilometer walk, hot day outside, how? And then, the third displacement and I thought, no, that wasn't me. That was the world. I stood up very carefully, replaced the book on the shelf and walked as steadily as I could towards the exit. Distantly I heard the sound of heavy machinery and remembered, too late, that they are constructing a new municipal building next door to the library, to replace the old one that stood there, the one they tore down. A line from a poem about Gilgamesh came to mind: He walks the tilting earth / unknowing . . . On into the furnace of the afternoon, the tipping, changeable world, the conditional uncertainty, the false certainty of our perceptual, conceptual, accommodations.




Yesterday I got back the results from my annual check up / blood test, which I've been having done for the last three years now. Somewhat delayed because this year I watched myself indulging in classic male avoidance behaviour . . . because of certain family matters I won't go into here, I went in too early (May) for the test, so the Doc filled out the forms and told me to come back in August; which I didn't do, waiting until mid-October, all along stressing about what the results might be. It's interesting what they can find out just by looking at a bit (actually, it looked, in the one swift, nauseating glance I allowed myself, like rather a lot) of blood: cholesterol levels, blood sugar / diabetes, the chance that you have prostate cancer, kidney function, liver function . . . I was in the normal range for everything except the last which, given my habits, is hardly surprising. The first time I did this test Dr. Chan observed that I drink too much red wine and I said how to do you know that? but he went all sphinx-like and just muttered something about the enzymes. The next year, ditto; but this year I couldn't get to see Dr. Chan, who is in demand as a skin specialist, and made an appointment with Dr. Hsu instead . . . who, unprompted, explained: the alcohol causes wear and tear on cell membranes which then leak enzymes into the blood, which must then (I think) be cleaned up by the liver . . . or maybe it's just their presence signals excess of all this other junk that the liver has to clean up. Not sure. Dr. Hsu even went so far as to show me the figures: I was in the late seventies on the first test, went up into the mid-eighties last year, but this year was down at 68; below 55 is the safe or normal zone. This intrigued me too: the last two times I've been tested I abstained for the four or five days preceding the test but this year didn't bother. Which means, I think, that what is being measured is not so much usage as a state of being. As with anything of this nature, the fact that I can understand some little part of what I'm doing to myself makes it easier to come to some sensible resolution of the issue. Moderation, I suppose. Whatever that means.


The Mitchells

I am seeing this: two men are sitting on a pole
they have dug a hole for and will, after dinner, raise
I think for wires. They are boiling water in a prune tin.
Bees hum their shift in unthinning mists of white

busaria blossom, under the noon of wattles.
The men eat big meat sandwiches out of a styrofoam
box with a handle. One is overheard saying:
drought that year. Yes. Like trying to farm the road.

The first man, if asked, would say
I'm one of the Mitchells.
The other would gaze for a while, dried leaves in his palm,
and looking up, with pain and subtle amusement,

I'm one of the Mitchells. Of the pair, one has been rich
but never stopped wearing his oil-stained felt hat. Nearly everything
they say is ritual
. Sometimes the scene is an avenue.

Les Murray on The Mitchells here



My sons Jesse & Liamh, a few months ago at Dark Point;
Jess, on the right, has just turned 13; Liamh will be 10 next Friday.

photo: Maggie Hall


all the remembered songs

The last book I remember reading before setting out from Auckland to Sydney in 1981 was Patrick White's The Vivisector - a Penguin paperback, as above, that I found somewhere and no longer have; perhaps it was a library book. Don't know who made that cover either though it does have echoes in it of Brett Whiteley's London paintings of the early 1960s. Anyway. The Vivisector, as books will, left me with an indelible impression of a Sydney I had not at that stage even seen: dark, visceral, stinking and steaming, a place of wild contrasts and elemental energies that were barely tamed by a vestigial and deformed social structure inherited from Great Britain. It is a portrait of an artist, Hurtle Duffield, and an account of his life and work. He has in his background gentlemanly forebears but is born into a slum in Surry Hills, one of the many and increasing kids of a bottle-o and a laundress, and then is sold - or bought - by a rich family, the Courtneys, for whom his mother works. For five hundred pounds. They live somewhere in the eastern suburbs, Rushcutters Bay White says, but he is always coy about places and times in the book, which is really charting an interior not an exterior geography, a spacetime that is as visceral as Duffield's paintings, which are powerfully evoked without ever really being described: a remarkable achievement in itself. Most of the action does happen in the eastern suburbs, where White lived later on in life. About of a third of the way into its 600+ pages Hurtle buys an old house in Flint Street, Paddington and lives the rest of his life there. Of course I didn't understand any of this when I first read The Vivisector and it was pure coincidence that the first house I lived in here, in Gipps Street, is just a stone's throw away from Flinton Street, which is maybe the inspiration for White's Flint Street. Paddington wasn't nearly as gentrified then as it is now, you could still pick up echoes and rumours of the working class suburb that grew up around the military barracks. Anyway. A few weeks ago, in the St. Vinnies around the corner, I saw a hardback copy, a 2nd edition, of The Vivisector for sale and almost bought it: but its spine was cracked and it had been written in in biro so I didn't. Then, not so very long afterwards, as if some power was importuning me, there was another, a first edition this time, without its dust jacket but otherwise in pretty good condition . . . so I did buy it. Even then I wasn't sure if I would re-read it, White's not easy, he doesn't write page turners and at 642 pps this is his longest book. Well, I got hooked. And I'm still hooked. About twenty pages from the end and I don't want it to finish. It is hardly the book I remember from 30 years ago, my memories of it were almost entirely taken up with the early stages, Hurtle's childhood and growing up, his love affair with the prostitute Nancy Lightfoot in pre- and post-World War One Sydney. And I was too young and too naive then to appreciate White's own presence in the book, his own amusement, delight, disgust, fascination, obsession with the character he has made, his habit of twitching Duffield's male or hetero drag aside to reveal flashes of his own lineaments as an artist and a man: I suppose I mean I read it quite literally the first time, as realism, and failed to realise the depth of White's duplicity and artistry - where the two can be distinguished. I hear his dry chuckle reverberating behind every other sentence, the enormous pleasure he takes in the construction of a mise en scene which he then, with even greater pleasure, reveals to be - fake. Or at least artificial. His satire on what passes for high society in Sydney is immaculate, cruelly accurate and yet, however much ridicule he heaps on people, you always feel his sympathy for their predicament, which is his own, and mine and belongs to all of us: that we are tied to a body that will in the end betray us. But the chief delight is his prose, which is highly wrought yet utterly convincing, sometimes Joycean in its coinages, psychologically acute, sensous and rich with a kind of rotting magnificence which is his as much as it is Hurtle Duffield's or the city's. Here's a passage from near the end: For instance: the blood of horses wallowing in sea shallows at dawn, milky water filling the satin troughs between belly and thighs as they shimmy on their lovely backs, before lunging to their feet to shake their barrels, all feathered with light and motion, flinging into the used sea the beads of water from their stringy manes. Where had he seen these bathers? He must convey something of the horses, not themselves, their spirit. In the same way the girl in the crushed pink hat and cotton frock strumming out of an old banjo all the remembered songs: fingers, nails blunted by the strumming, sanded texture of the arms, tremors of the breasts inside the gritty dress. As the girl entered the trees, her skin brindled by light and shade, the old banjo made a papery thump thump trailing behind her through the tussocks . . . he was also this girl with whom he might or might not have slept. Lying under the paperbarks, he identified the shammy-leather skin, the goose pimples growing in it, the sand tasted on interchangeable mouths. Now it was himself alone watching the great pantechnicon driving for what reason through the shallows. And the essence of smoky cat slipping through the long grass at dusk looking for a kill, at the same time to curl her tail around something in the name of love. Everything private perfect reduced to a kill if not by time the super-cat by the khaki klan of killers. Tear off a hand or leg it doesn't belong to you anyway for ever and blood is made to bleed. Like letters. My dear Cat. He composed letters just as he painted pictures in his mind and lost them before he could get them down. Everything comes back though, like the homing pigeons pensioned men keep in their yards. Stalagmites of white droppings, lacy scribbles of pigeon shit, a coral scratching over worm-eaten boards . . . from where did he know the horses, the shammy-skinned singer, the pigeon-loft held together by the rusty ends of kero tins? He didn't know. But he knew. Where and when doesn't in the end matter.



ghosts of the red dust

Around dusk I'm driving someone to the airport when I see the big black cloud towering in the south. Storm is rising . . . blues fall down like drops of rain . . . later on, after the forked lightning and the heavy showers, a drunk lawyer going to Bankstown tells me that the forecast, which he does not believe, is for one hundred kilometre an hour winds. They come through in the night, bringing the red dust, and next morning the air is a sinister orange colour, car headlamps and streetlights glow silver and beamless, unable to penetrate the murk. We can feel the fine particulate matter in our nostrils, in our eyes, on our tongues as we wait out by the letterbox for the taxi. We are early or it is late so we hail a cruiser, a mad Arab who nearly tears M's fingers off as he grabs at her suitcase and drives through the apocalyptic streets as if he himself has a date with destiny. On the railway overbridge at Sydenham a truck has spilled its load of turf, the driver is out on the road with a mask around his mouth rolling up the unrolled rolls of someone's new lawn while the red wind whips by. No planes are leaving because no planes are coming in: the dust sucked into their jet engines might turn to mud once they fly up again into wet layers of atmospheric cloud. The airline disavows all responsibility and leaves it to us to re-book on a later flight. When that is done we check into the Ibis for the day, eat, shower, rest, unaware that the ferrous dust contains microbes, viruses, that have lain quiescent out there in the Lake Eyre Basin since before the Phanerozoic Eon began. They came perhaps from that epochal collision between proto-earth and the very large, Mars-sized planetesimal that split off the moon; and have been biding their time ever since: older than the 4404 Ma zircon crystals of Alcheringa, older than Cryptozoic bacteria found in the Greenland permafrost; almost older than time. We don't at first realise we are playing host to aliens, the knowledge comes upon us only slowly, as blessed incomprehension gives way to the kind of clarity I wouldn't wish upon anyone else; except that we are all equally infected or soon will be. For instance I did not know that the molecules of blood and chlorophyll are nearly identical, iron in the one replaced by magnesium in the other, but now I see it at a glance. I look down at the palm of my hand and watch there, past skin and fat and bone and blood, the double helix untwining, the mitochondria exorcising their vesicles, the RNA . . . I keeping thinking Rodinia but that is the wrong word. These Martian viruses are not responsible for our arcane nomenclature, they have no interest in any of that, all they want to do is replicate as fast as possible. I have a nose full of the red dust that I don't unload until we are in the hotel room in Auckland and have slept and woken and it is morning again. It's in the creases of my big black sports bag and all through the back pack I use to carry smaller things around. Auckland is rainy, all grey and white and blue, muted and dazzling at once. I get wet walking up to the publishers on Anzac Avenue and notice a slightly orange tinge in the drips falling from my eyebrows. Out on the island we explore military fortifications from World War Two: gun emplacements, observation decks, radar rooms, underground bunkers where the big shells were stored. Long concrete tunnels for unspecified purposes. All the stock has been taken off while some poison that thins the blood is dropped to make a dent in the populations of rodents and mustelids and feral cats infesting the island. It's killed all the native wildlife too, as well as a few dogs, and without sheep to crop it the grass grows tall and lush and green and looks like something out of a film, perhaps of the Mongolian steppe . . . or would if there were not saucers and slabs of blue gulf everywhere you look. Our X Ray eyes trouble us less out here, it's only in the city, among the uninfected or not yet infected populations that the extrasensory seems an affliction. After all who really wants to know what others are thinking? Or rather, not thinking so much as just aimlessly moving around the clutter we keep in our minds. I weary of this too great an insight into things, I try instead to open up a channel of communication with the beings I now harbour; but the only language they understand is chemical. On the plane back we drink Bloody Marys and watch a very funny film about a Bucks Night in Vegas. At the duty free I buy a bottle of Kentucky bourbon because I've learned that alcohol sends a strong signal into the recesses of my body where the particulate beings have established their beachheads. In Summer Hill I see the red dust everywhere, all over the cars in the street, in the cracks between every paving stone up at the village, gathered on the leaves of the dry sclerophyll trees. My apartment smells of it, dry, slightly metallic, utterly without aura. We have left two wine glasses in the sink, rinsed but with the grey water still in them. A skin of red dust has formed on top of each one and when I look closely at it I see cities of the red night incandescing, their outlandish tribes contending for mastery, their orgies and massacres, their carnage, their sadness and their fear. I quickly tip the glasses' contents away down the drain even though I know it is useless: the ghosts of the red dust are with us now forever and those changes of perception noted above are only the beginning of a process of mutation that will soon make us unrecognisable to each other; except as the aliens we are now fast becoming.



. . . the andromeda galaxy

empurpled . . .


cyborgs at the junction

Some things are hard to shift out of the head. Monday arvo I saw a guy knocked down by a taxi ... he survived what was in the scheme of things not that bad an accident; but still. I was idling third on the Bondi Junction rank when I saw him cross between the two cabs ahead of me. Youngish, chubby, non-descript clothes. Soon as I realised he wasn't getting into the point cab I lost interest, but did see him give a little skip in preparation for running across the road after the bus just then passing had gone by. Then, the bang. Looked up again, there he was, spread-eagled on the tar-seal, having apparently bounced off the side of a moving taxi the way people bounce off invisible force fields in the movies. Accidents in the aftermath are strange: you see things with great clarity but don't necessarily know what they mean. This fellow scrambled to his feet, went over to the passenger side window of the now stationary cab and, with hands together as if in prayer, bowed to the driver within. It was then I noticed that the wing mirror on that side of the car had been torn off and was lying next to the front wheel of the cab in front of mine. I climbed out and picked it up, just as the driver of the damaged cab, looking exasperated and ignoring the guy he hit, came out to retrieve it. Thinking about it afterwards, watching the guy massaging his upper arm and shoulder, I realised that the mirror must have hit him there with force strong enough to rip it from its mooring. Here's the strange thing: somehow my mind has transposed the mirror, broken off, glass still intact, trailing electrical wires, with the guy's arm. As if he were a cyborg and his arm some kind of bionic attachment. I mean when I close my eyes I see him holding his dun shoulder with wires protruding from the empty socket where his arm used to be. Waiting for the robot repair men to come and make him whole again.




The sky through the Venetian blinds is the colour of Neptune. The pale blue of ponds and evenings, across which the errant moon, Despina, casts down her queenly shadow over the clouds of hydrogen swirling in 2100 kilometre per hour winds. I would close the blinds if I did not see, far away in the west, the faint sigla of our future happiness setting. It's hard to make out against that faded ultramarine but looks like this:

Astronomical symbol for Neptune.

which means I think that the sea holds whatever promise there may be for us now. I used to imagine Venus, I used to entertain Mars. For half a decade now I've been haunted by Saturn, Cassini pictures beamed back across 8.833 A.U. directly into my visual cortex, scrambling the synapses until I saw rings wherever I went. Fingers, toes. Now I think of the Ninth Men, designed to live out there beyond Uranus: Inevitably it was a dwarf type, limited in size by the necessity of resisting an excessive gravitation ... too delicately organized to withstand the ferocity of natural forces on Neptune ... civilization crumbled into savagery.

Astronomical symbol for Neptune.

And the Tenth to the Seventeenth: Nowhere did the typical human form survive; but the Fifteenth and the Sixteenth achieved a great civilization and learned to study past minds. Then there was the Eighteenth: Superficially we seem to be not one species but many. Extinguished with the rest of what remained of the Solar System in a supernova n million years from now. Or so the book says. As if the future might be written from the past, as if the study of past minds might reveal not this future but another: there have been so many worlds / between th bell & th blue star !

Astronomical symbol for Neptune.

Neptune. I'm still going to close the blind and go about my business, but just before I do I take a closer look at that strange now deepened blue. And it isn't the colour of the sky. It isn't the sky at all. It's like in Quiet Earth, that blue planet has come down to this blue planet and we are having congress with one another. I hear the bells of St. Andrews, tolling out a final evensong. I see the black rags of birds flung up against the void. I feel the unholy chill of hydrogen creeping along my skin, minus 218 °C. Can you name that colour now, azurine, berryline, gridelin or bloom?

Astronomical symbol for Neptune.

I should close the blinds but don't: go instead out the door onto the balcony. I'll swallow blue or let it swallow me. A last thought: Raymond Chandler's favourite piece of American slang: Aw, turn blue ... I do. And while there's still time step off into that darkening sky.

image: Despina, Moon of Nepturn; quotations from Last & First Men by Olaf Stapledon (1930) except the lines of verse from David Mitchell, laughing with th taniwha, Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby (1972)



The Disappearing M

This review of the book my publishers like to call ZoM appeared before the book is even out - and before I had seen a copy of it. It - the review - popped into my inbox this morning, before I'd had a chance to go down to the local PO to pick up my six author's copies. Looks good ... I already knew, from an email the other day, that an inexplicable error had appeared on page 18; somehow, nobody knows how, the 'm' in Gilgamesh had disappeared. I checked back on the last proof I saw, and the 'm' is there; ditto at the publisher's end; but now it is gone. Here's the sentence: It’s curious too that Gilga(m)esh reaches the Waters of Death by travelling east, towards and then past the place where the sun rises: the Egyptians, the Greeks, and all subsequent major cultures in the Western tradition locate the land of the dead in the other direction, where the sun sets. Actually I quite like the version Gilgaesh; and, inter alia, wonder if in fact the errant 'm' wasn't itself eaten by the waters of death.



Yesterday morning I went to the local supermarket to buy a few things; and when I was given my change at the checkout (a note and a few coins), for some reason neglected to put the note, as I usually do, in my wallet. Went to the bakery next door (they do good sourdough), spent some of the coins ... as I walked away I recall thinking that I shouldn't be strolling along with a banknote in my naked hand and at that moment, or very soon afterwards, it disappeared ... ! Just disappeared! And I do not know what happened to it. Naturally, a few steps on, when I realised it had gone, I turned around and went back for a look; nada. It had vanished into thin air; like a reverse of one of those conjurer's tricks where a coin appears out of an empty palm; or as if some unseen hand had reached down and taken it from me. Or had I (or rather my right arm) passed, unwitting, through some anti-gravity field, some mini black hole, some Bermuda Triangle for banknotes. I know already that this is something I will never understand; while the metaphorical interpretations remain to haunt me: too true, too true.



Stan Frost

A week or so ago, maybe last Thursday, as I was wandering back from Ashfield to Summer Hill, I suddenly found myself talking out loud to no-one in particular - the first sign of madness, we used to say. This is not a habit of mine and I'm not sure what prompted the episode, beyond my having recently noted a resemblance between a friend and colleague I've been seeing a bit of lately, and my old Godfather. His name was Stan Frost and the inadvertent monologue, which I'll try to reconstruct some of here, was about him. Stan was the art teacher at Ruapehu College when I was growing up in Ohakune in the 1950s. He was a real Cockney, which I understood then to mean that he had been born within the sound of the Bow Bells; but he didn't speak Cockney: rather he had the smooth, educated tones of so-called Received Pronunciation. He was a dapper dresser, usually in a tweed jacket, grey trousers with a knife-edge crease, well-polished black brogues; and had a penchant for colourful patterned knitted sleeveless pullovers worn under the jacket and over the shirt. He also had fascinating hair, intricately crinkled, its natural dark brown turning, seemingly before the eyes, to grey, which he wore oiled and combed back from a high forehead; and his skin, like my own father's, was quite swart, as if there had been somewhere back amongst the generations an admixture of Mediterranean or even Moorish blood. Stan drove a Model T Ford and for most of the time I knew him, lived alone in one or other of two dark and mysterious houses, the first behind high macrocarpa hedges next to the College, the second, similar, at Rangataua. He was, my parents said to me seriously on more than one occasion, a Bachelor. But I knew that he hadn't always lived alone: for a period he had a companion, another Bachelor, another teacher (but of what?), another Englishman by the name of Bill Pawley, who wore little round rimless glasses and three piece suits; they had a place together at Rangataua, a silvery paintless two storey wooden building that had been a shop which they called Wenceslas Towers and fitted out with a bar - unheard of; us kids were sometimes allowed to play with or around it while Stan perfected an exotic omelet for our parents to eat. Bill Pawley departed for parts unknown, perhaps back to the old country, perhaps to Canada, at some point in the decade, leaving Stan alone. Stan was a much-loved teacher, an exceptionally charming man but also a very private one. I remember my mother telling me once (I must have asked her) that, yes, there had been a woman, in England, but something had happened and they never married; curiously, whenever I bring this particular piece of information to mind, it comes along with an image of a blue bonnet with a wide brim and trailing ribbons that are meant to be tied under the chin: whatever happened between them was specific and encapsulated in this image, which was one of loss. I think Stan may have remembered her by her hat. A later attempt to pair him off with the Infant Mistress also failed. My parents and their friends - the Lawns, the Watsons, the Brunings, Nancy Leggatt, Stan Frost, Bill Pawley - used to stage amateur theatricals in their own homes, that they wrote themselves, and in which each of them adopted a persona not wholly distinct from their selves in real life. They were musicals, with piano accompaniment, and were performed with great gusto and many shouts of laughter at their own wit and bravado. Also lots of smoking and drinking. The only piece I remember of any of these musicals is a snatch of song that begins: My name is Flan / I am your man / A problem does delight me / For I suppose ... then trails off into doubt and supposition. Stan was a good cook and lived well; the first liqueur I ever tasted (Cointreau) was at his house. He was also keen on hunting and fishing, and used often to go after trout at nearby Lake Taupo. Sometimes he would give us a fresh one he had caught, to be, invariably, fried in the heavy blue and white iron pan on the coal range. I remember, in 1973, when my father was in the midst of one of his breakdowns and I was a bit sideways myself, after an abortive visit he had made to Auckland driving Dad back in his own car, a Chrysler Valiant, to Wellington. We broke the journey at Ohakune and stayed the night with Stan Frost. I recall Stan's perplexity at the shattered state my father was in, his well-meaning helplessness and his English reserve that prevented him making any but the most oblique remarks about the situation; and I also recall how his house had become even darker, more mysterious and more cluttered than it had been when I was a child. But the food (a stew) was excellent, and the wine, and, yes, we drank Cointreau after dinner. That was I think the last time I saw him. When he retired from teaching he left the district and moved to a house he had built, or bought, on the shores of Taupo, so that he could indulge his love of fishing. Later I heard, from the Lawns, that after the move he became reclusive and hardly saw anyone, not even old friends. At the same time, the clutter I noticed in his house in 1973 increased, until it was only possible for one man to make a single track from room to room to room: piles of newspapers I believe, and books, and cardboard cartons of things that could not be thrown away. He's dead now but I don't know (although I could certainly find out) when he died or anything much else about his last years. Nor do I know quite what else to say; beyond this: from when I was a very small boy I loved and admired Stan Frost, and was always proud to be his Godson; and nothing related here, and nothing else that has come to my notice about him since, has or could change that feeling. And yet, while I can remember clearly how he looked, the sound of his voice, his physical presence, he seems, as time goes by, to become more and more mysterious, like a puzzle that looks simple on first glance but gradually discloses an intricacy and a depth and a strangeness that means, in the end, I will have to give up trying to solve it and content myself with mere contemplation of its elegant inexplicability.



Though nights and mornings are still cold, days are fine and warm and if you sit for a while, as I did today out in Bronte, under the sun blazing from a cobalt sky, it's hot. A hitch-hiker I picked up a couple of weeks ago told me that he had heard a long-range weather forecaster, who works off the moon, predict that we would have some rain at the end of this month and then nothing until a downpour the week before Christmas. Well, perhaps. Because it is August, the wattle is flowering, those tiny yellow puff petals, if that's what they are, blow in the wind or lie scattered on pavements, roadsides, gutters ... and then there's the scent, indescribable unless you know it: wattle. It is one of my earliest scent-memories and thus, and paradoxically, when the wattles flower in Sydney in August, I am liable at any moment to be transported back to Burns Street, Ohakune, where I grew up and where the wattles flowered in profusion every spring and the tiny yellow fragments blew, gathered, lay scattered ... has always seemed oddly fortuitous, this sensory memory that collapses half a century into a moment, and if at the same time I hear a magpie quardle-oodle then I truly do not know where I am or properly who I might be. And as I come out of this daze-dream, I might remember again something I did not know for most of my life: that my father's father Charlie was Australian, Melbourne-born and raised there until his older sisters plucked him out of the family milieu, because of his father, James', alcoholism and took him over to live a pious life in Herne Bay, Auckland ... or so the tale goes. Who knows? But I like to think that an appreciation of the scent of wattle flowering is not just apparent to my senses but, through some sort of Linnaean inheritance of acquired characteristics, in my genes as well.



John Philemon
Backhouse [ca. 1880] Alexander Turnbull Library, Aotearoa.



The 4.28 from Strathfield

It hardly seems possible that it is only a year since the last City to Surf; and inconceivable that I should have gone on it again ... the things we do for our kids. This year the weather was better and I enjoyed it much more, even though I forgot to take a hat ... found one underneath a car bumper somewhere in Diamond Bay, I think it was, a beauty, white baseball cap with black stripes, a logo of a red cricket ball with a white cotton cricketer embossed upon it (looks to me like a straight drive for four) and the words THE CRICKET CLUB below that. Course the kids disappeared almost as soon as we rounded the corner into Williams Street and I didn't see them again until Bondi; but I'd taken the precaution this time of giving the older boy a mobile phone. He used up most of the available credit texting me faintly derisive reports of his progress and had all but run out of talk time by the time I hobbled over the finish line ... but had managed to tell me where to find him. It was enjoyable mostly because I spent the walk with Dr. Phil's 76 year old father, a retired chemical engineer who came to Australia as a 16 year old in 1949, having escaped his native Latvia in August 1945 and spent the intervening four years in northern Germany, somewhere near Bremen. A man of few words, but sweet natured and companionable and so we held each other up, or perhaps egged each other on, through the whole 14 kilometres. Getting home after these events is almost as difficult, and as time consuming, as getting there, and I had then to take the kids back to Woy Woy, where their mother was picking them up from the station ... was going to drive but, well, I do a lot of driving and we already had our Funday tickets so the train was the cheaper and, as I wrongly thought, more convenient option. We caught the 4.28 from Strathfield and, because it was going to be packed, sat in the always emptier first carriage of the train. Just north of Hornsby, while I was reading Henry Lawson (The Geological Spieler) and the kids were playing a game on the laptop, the train whistle blew and then there was an ominous sound, a soft, wet thud, repeated once, as the train wheels ran over something on the track. We came slowly to a stop and then, moments later, the driver announced there would be a short delay. This soon became an indefinite delay and later, we were told, would be followed by an evacuation. By then most of us on board had realised that the strangely hollow sound we had heard was that of a human body that had fallen on the rails: either someone had leaped from the road bridge that crosses the railway line just north of Asquith Station, or they had thrown themselves in front of the train from the grassy bank beside the track - god knows, and we were never to. We had ample time to contemplate the peculiar horror of this fatality, as CityRail called it; the train stayed in that benighted spot for three full hours and in all that time we were forbidden to leave it for any reason whatsoever (though apparently a group of cops on their way on to night duty at Gosford got off quick smart and various smokers did contrive to fag standing out on the metal pathways that run between carriages). Horror and boredom mixed. Some hysteria too - a very young couple with a small baby and three feral children in tow caused a ruckus, she shouting about depression and anxiety, full throttle, until a cop told her if she didn't shut up he'd lock her up for the night and take the baby away. My older boy was pretty freaked out but the younger was more sanguine, if that's the word, about the event, though less tolerant of the all but interminable waiting that ensued. There was a fellow sitting near us, an Englishman, who'd worked for Brit Rail cleaning up after episodes such as these, though never a human death - deer, cows, pheasants etc - so he filled us in on all the gory detail we might otherwise have had to imagine for ourselves. One of the strange things for me was the feeling that we had somehow, inadvertently, through no fault of our own, become prisoners of CityRail - I even heard my elder son at one stage speculate (how did he know? from a computer game?) as to which of us would first fall victim to Stockholm Syndrome - but the Pommie bloke assured us that we were being sequestered so that none of us would see anything, since that might then lead to trauma and thus to CityRail costs eg counselling, legal action and so forth. Then there were the logistical challenges ... first they told us buses were coming, then that there would be another train. That is in fact what happened and we had all of us, eventually, one by one, to file out the front of the train, over those fatal wheels, looking neither right nor left, and into another that had come down from the north to take us on. A diabetic without her insulin had to be removed at the next station, Berowra, into an ambulance and the wonderfully officious State Emergency Services personnel kept snarling recalcitrant passengers back into line ... though the police on the whole behaved rather better. I guess it depends upon the individual. We reached Woy Woy at about 8.45 and I handed over the kids, who were by then, especially the younger, in a state of exhaustion that wasn't helped by the fact that they hadn't eaten for six or seven hours. Then I learned that the next train back to the City wasn't due for another 45 minutes - when a fatality occurs both north and south lines are closed immediately and chaos follows throughout the creaky old system. I declined my ex's offer to take me down the road to a Kentucky Fried outlet (there was one outside the stopped train, on the other side of the Pacific Highway, shining balefully white and red through the gathering dark under a Russell Drysdale sunset that was a mirror of the one on the cover of the Henry Lawson book; and I've never liked their food anyway) and went instead for a walk around Woy Woy. A desolate place on a Sunday night and a town I've never liked even when it's busy. I was thinking I might go to one of the two pubs for a drink. One I think I might've drunk in but never since a Scottish friend, a Glaswegian, told me after he'd been there once that it was scarier than even the worst pubs in his old home town; the other I've been to occasionally but never really felt comfortable in; I didn't go to either and then, as I was walking down a dark deserted street, my ex's car with her driving and our two kids sitting up in it sailed unaccountably by - it seemed to me that I left them hours ago but that couldn't have been the case. They didn't see me, the kids I mean, but there was a belated, half-hearted beep of the horn once they were far past and it was too much for me, I headed straight back to the railway station since there, at least, I could begin to imagine arriving somewhere else. There were only three other people on the platform, all Asian. A man about my own age who looked terminally depressed; a slightly younger woman with big teeth speaking Japanese loudly into her mobile phone; and a young fellow who could have been an Aussie, also depressed looking, with a bunch of red roses lying wilting in their plastic shroud on the bench beside him. I read Henry Lawson until the train arrived; at one point (The Union Buries Its Dead) he writes: It didn't matter much; nothing really does. The fall of lumps of clay on a stranger's coffin doesn't sound any different from the fall of the same things on an ordinary wooden box - but I kept, and keep, thinking of that other sound, that soft wet thud, echoed just once, and wondering whose soul escaped back there, and from what torment it escaped, if it did escape, and why ... and other useless questions like that.

image: Angry Harrison's Store, Russell Drysdale, 1950



somewhere else

When I returned home quite late last night after a dinner party, there was an email from a Lisbon based publishing house complimenting me on Luca Antara, the book, and inquiring very politely as to who they should speak to regarding a possible Portuguese edition? There's no way of saying this without sounding like a ninny but the fact is, I was so moved that I wept. Luca Antara is written in homage to the great Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa; and it also seeks to imagine specific ways in which the early Portuguese presence in Australian history might be made manifest. So an expression of interest from the most prestigious, and also one of the oldest, publishing houses in Portugal felt like a mark of honour in itself; and a kind of validation of a book that already has a curious history. Conceived as a book about Australia, it was written mostly in New Zealand; only the last section, which is set in Malaysia and Indonesia, was written here, at Pearl Beach, on automatic pilot while I was in the midst of a very difficult relationship break-up. When it was published, by East Street Publications (ESP) in November 2006, most Australian reviewers were puzzled by it: an interesting if not entirely comprehensible work; but the reviewer in the Sydney Morning Herald detested it and wrote one of those pieces that are designed to kill a book stone dead. Sales have never been good here and The Supply Party, which came out only six months ago, has already sold twice as many copies as Luca. But ESP sold it on to English publishers Oldcastle Books, who put it between new and better covers and brought it out in hardback (2008), then in paperback (2009). English and American reviewers, like NZ reviewers before them, have not had any difficulty in working out what kind of book it is and most of them have given it what I believe to be its due. Meanwhile, in Australia itself, despite its low profile, I keep coming across people who have read and loved it - from the father-in-law of the woman who works behind the counter at a local 2nd hand store to the the Head of Journalism at a major university. Somehow the possibility of a Portuguese edition, which of course may not occur, seems like a homecoming to what was always conceived of as a homeless book. I don't know if any reviewer has pointed this out yet but, with one exception (guess who), every other Australian character who appears in Luca Antara - myself included - is from somewhere else.