Have recently finished reading Q by Luther Blissett. Except, as is pointed out early on, Luther Blissett, a soccer player, had nothing to do with the writing of the book, which was actually done by four anonymous Italian men from Bologna. Q begins 'out of Europe' in 1555, with the (also anonymous) protagonist reading a notebook which he has somehow acquired. How this notebook came into his hands might be one way of describing the story, which begins in Wittenburg in 1518, just after Luther had made his move, and whose action proper starts with the crushing of the Peasant's Revolt at Frankenhausen in May, 1525 - an action which, according to W. G. Sebald, so distressed the painter Grunewald that he covered his face with a cloth and refused to leave his house for two years. The second part of the book concerns the Anabaptist takeover of Munster and its proclamation as a free city in the 1530s; and the terrible events which followed, as Jan of Leyden became intoxicated with power and, later, the city fell, with much slaughter and many reprisals. The third part of the book takes place mostly in northern Italy and deals with the intrigues around the Papal Court as opposing factions seek the ascendancy, and the next Papacy. 'Gert from the Well' to give the hero his most used name, is a radical free-thinker, a common man, uncommonly resourceful, not a fantatic, a kind of everyman; his opponent, Q, or Qoelet, or 'Carafa's Eye', another German, is a Papal spy who has worked under cover to compromise and destroy the various radical Protestent experiments; the two, who are known to each other, but do not 'know' each other, conduct a pas-de-deux over a period of thirty odd years, which culminates in Venice in the 1550s. Wonderful book, written in a series of cinematic grabs of action, on the one hand, and a series of letters, on the other, to give you a succint, vivid and always humane account of the period.

It is followed by a series of illustrations, maps, portraits, beneath one of which (a map of central Europe at the time) is an excerpt from the press release by the authors on 1.4.99, against the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (seems like an age ago, don't it? ...) : "We have never been interested in generic calls to peace: there is an extremely strong rationale for the existence of war today, just as there was four centuries ago. It is deeply rooted in the criminal economic and political choices made by states and multi-national powers, whether they are the United States or the Empire of Charles V. And similarly there is a rationale behind the ethnic cleansing and reprisals, one to which we do not adhere and have always fervently opposed ... "

The last words of the book, which ends where it began, in Istanbul in 1555, are worth meditating upon; they, are, as it were, the accumulated wisdom of Gert from the Well, that great survivor: "Do not advance the action according to a plan."


Freedom Square

After the torpor of the Museum of National History, I was walking along the far edge of Merdeka Square towards the River Klang - where Malay freedom was proclaimed in August 1957 - when I saw a tall skinny black man in shirt, trousers and sandals coming towards me. He asked me where I was from and how I liked it in KL. Oh, you should have been here when the British ruled, he said. Those were the days. We sat down to talk; he carried a small cushion because the stones were hard and his bottom was thin. He had no teeth, caved in cheeks and when he talked his very red tongue protruded from his mouth, top side up, like a large plum. His name was Gerald John Baptiste and he was a Christian. His plastic identity card showed a gap where the word Muslim would have been written if he was one. Three percent of the population, he said. We get a hard time. This was not his only grief. As a homeless man, he faced endless persecution from the police, who like to keep the old colonial district free of vagrants. They pick them up in their cars and take them far away and let them out in another part of town, which means they then have to walk back to where they stay. Over the road was the magistrates court and the high court, enormous faux Moghul and Arabic buildings built by the British in the 19th century; I had walked past there earlier, as clerks and lawyers with briefs in their hands, bizarrely suited and tied in the intense heat, hurried to court or to chambers. The pristine oblong of grass between us and the courts was a cricket ground where John Major had once played; behind us was the mock Tudor pavilion, now a classy restaurant. Gerald pulled a selection of tourist brochures from his bag, a pen from his pocket, put on the glasses hung around his neck and gave me a detailed, informative and very clear account of the local attractions, where the best markets were for electronic goods, cds, dvds, and so forth, all the time annotating the map in a firm, fine hand. He said he went to church every day; of the other religions, he liked the Hindus best because at their temple, when there was a wedding, the homeless could go and share in the feast. His ambition was to be a tourist guide, but there was no way the government would let such as he do that. He was not a sad or an angry man; resigned, perhaps, but cheerful along with it. He said he had a 2 million dollar bed, pointing to the immense flagpole at the end of the cricket ground. That's where I sleep, he said. Can I give you some money? I asked him. Oh, yes, he said, I am very hungry. I saw his eyes flash as he saw the colour of the notes in my wallet. Then we shook hands, exchanged names, and said goodbye.


How it is

Last Thursday we had the talk we've needed to have for a long time: not about the past and what went wrong but about the future and how to manage it. It was really good, we worked out how to go forward in a positive and companionable way. Next morning, Friday, we woke up to an eviction notice, the one thing we had not factored in to our plans was the need to find another house - almost impossible in this place at this time of year. Saturday I went down to vote and then started cleaning out the garage, a task that has been waiting a long time; I had this pleasing notion that all our accumulated junk might be thrown out along with the Howard government, not that that seemed very likely. At some point I opened an old suitcase and found the box of badges I used to wear in the days when we wore badges: among them was the one I used to pin on every election day, saying No Matter Who You Vote For The Government Still Gets In and wished I'd worn it down to the local hall that morning. The election was of course a disaster, but not until I checked the news Sunday morning did I realise the Xtian fascists have won the Senate was well. Now they can do all those unspeakable things they've wanted to do for so long. We will regret this result for a long time, I thought, even those who voted for it. Later on that day I lost my glasses, which I've had for more than ten years, which I love, and which I've feared losing as long as I've had them. Last time I remember wearing them was playing scrabble with the kids; they seem to have disappeared from the face of the earth. Did the young sulphur-crested cockatoo that's been hanging around suggesting we owe her/him a living make off with them? Or the testosterone-enraged brush turkey that's building a mound in the yard next door but one? I simply don't know. I had a script to re-read so I could make some notes for the next draft - deadline today - but that was of course impossible. This morning, Monday, I tried making the type bigger on the screen but it just didn't work. So, in amongst getting birthday presents for the kids and a new spring for the driver's side windscreen wiper on the Falcon, I bought a cheap pair of menu glasses from a chemist. They work, but not so well as my old ones did. I have to peer at the screen like one of the myopic electors of this my adopted country, which today I love and hate in about equal measure. So: no house, no good governance, no glasses ... these are not major afflictions when you think what some people in this world have to live with. And I refuse to despair.


The Big O Revisited

It could be that the reason Roy's recording of Will You Love Me Tomorrow - which may have gone out under the title But Will You Love Me Tomorrow - doesn't show up in any of the lists is because it was recorded in New Zealand while he was there in whatever year it was that he toured there. A local recording might well not be included in US lists, might not even have got onto vinyl, maybe a radio station recorded it, maybe even the station in Hamilton we heard playing it.

Plenty to go on with there. I remember a friend of mine telling me about his concert at the St. James, I think it was, in Wellington, how she was majorly impressed by his immaculate moontan and the fact that he never once took off his dark glasses during a sublime two hour set. Now, when was that? Late eighties perhaps.


"Truly, it seems that this Republic has become a republic of men bewitched, living outside the natural order of things."

Martin Gonzalez de Cellorigo, AD 1600



Potosi, over 4100 metres above sea-level (c. 660 higher than Lhasa!), was a sport, a freak; by far the highest city in the world, it was itself dominated by the Cerro. This immense ruddy cone rose nearly 650 metres higher still, and was riddled by veins of one of the world's richest ore-bodies; the surface exposure found in 1545 was ninety by four metres and 50 percent silver. Altitude and terrain were themselves advantages from a technical point of view, since there was no fear of flooding and much of the ore was accessible, to begin with at least, by adits and relatively short shafts. But these factors added a new dimension of suffering for the mitayo: an average winter day may range from -16 to +17 degrees centigrade; some mine entrances were at 4500 metres, nearly 15,000 feet. In the shafts, up which men and women carried heavy burdens on dizzying ladders, the air was hot and humid, poor in oxygen but rich in carbonic gas; at the exits, sweating and under-nourished bodies were plunged immediately into icy and rarified air, well above the altitudinal optimum even for Andean Indians. Well might it be said that only the heat of human greed could temper such a climate. Yet on this highly unfavourable site, too dry and cold for cultivation, rose one of the greatest cities, numerically, of the early modern world. It had some 120,000 souls of all colours in the late sixteenth century, and by 1650 claimed 160,000—as large as Amsterdam or any Italian city, probably twice as large as Madrid itself. The European populataion was numbered in thousands or even tens of thousands, and a very mixed lot it was.

The basis however remained, as it had to, the Indians, whether conscripted mitayos or more or less free 'fringe-dwellers' ... the mitayos lived mostly on chuño, frozen and dried potatoes, and kept themselves going by chewing coca leaves from the eastern Andean slopes and Chochabamba, whence also mine timbers had to be brought. Amalgamation needed great quatities of salt—1500 quintals a day in the 1630s—but this was available from the great salt-pans of the Altiplano 200 km or so to the west. Staple European foodstuffs came from Arequipa or from Salta, Jujuy, or Tucuman, which was also a great supplier of mules; further south the inland plains of La Plata supplied leather and tallow. While the official port of entry and outlet was Arica, this reaching down into the northern marches of modern Chile and Argentina was to become a major, though officially improper trade route ...

Alongside this mundane trade in subsistence and production goods was that in sinfully costly frivolities for the conspicuous consumption of the newly rich élite. Bartolomé Arzáns de Orsúa y Vela, the gloriously inconsequential eighteenth century chronicler of the city, gives a glittering and much quoted list of the luxuries which flowed in from all quarters of the world for the pleasures of the opulent Potosinos; many of these came in the back door, brought from La Plata by Portuguese merchants, the notorious Peruleiros—another leak from the official channels of exchange. Between these Perulieros and Peruleros, the merchant capitalists or their factors at Seville, the profits of Potosi were largely drained away; enough were left, however, to support a society raffish on a grand scale, out-Westerning the Hollywood West. Solid piety and good works did exist, but were overlaid by an atmosphere of fiesta and brawl: alongside the eighty churches were fourteen dance-halls and thirty-six gaming houses, staffed by 700 or 800 professional gamblers. Civil commotion was violent and endemic. Respectable Spanish women were relatively few, partly because childbirth at the high altitude was thought dangerous; but apart from many Indian women living by exercicios amorosos, there were 120 professional ladies, at their head one Doña Clara, who lived in a style ranking her with the grandes horizontales of the French Second Empire or Third Republic. And all around, gasping in the mine or shivering in the thin sharp air, the drafted relays of mitayos choked their lungs and lives out.

from The Spanish Lake


Juan Fernandez

The discoverer of the open-sea route which circumvented these inordinate delays [between New Spain & Chile] was one of twenty-six people, several of them sailors, living in Santiago de Chile in the 1570s, and all named Juan Fernandez; the meticulous researches of José Toribio Medina have narrowed the field to one. He discovered the island long named after him, but since 1966, by official decree of the Republic of Chile, styled Robinson Crusoe's Island.

Juan Fernandez seems to have come to Chile about 1550-1, and in the next twelve years had much experience, as boatswain and later master, in navigation between Peru and Chile. In February 1574 he was in command of the Nuestra Señora dos Remedios from Valparaiso to Callao; and when, on 27 October 1574, he took her out on the return, there can be scarcely any doubt that his southwestwards track—into the open Pacific—was deliberate. The wind régime on the coast is such that he could hardly have been blown off-shore; on the other hand, he was a close friend of Gallego, Mendaña's pilot on the 1567 voyage to the Solomons and from him he must have learned that once out of the mainstream of the Humboldt Current, and well into the Southeast Trades, winds and currents made a good southing much easier than it was close to the coast.

On 6 November Fernandez sighted the barren rocky islands he named San Felix and San Ambor ... and on the 22nd two islands which he named for the day, Santa Cecilia's. These were certainly the group known by his name ... thirty days from Callao he reached a Chilean port, either Valparaiso or Concepcion ... although his island did not appear on the maps until early in the next century, his 'new navigation' was soon adopted as the standard track.

One of the founders of Santiago, Juan Jufre (who introduced goats to Chile, and hence, at a remove, to Crusoe's Island), backed a reconnaissance in 1575, perhaps under Fernandez, though it is not certain the latter ever set foot on his islands. Nothing came of this, but in 1576 Fernandez was sent by Jufre ... to discover 'the islands which are frontier to this kingdom.' Knowledge of this expedition rests on one of the memorials with which the highly uncritical Dr Luis Arias sought to revive, in the totally unfavourable climate of Philip III's reign, the grand designs of Mendaña and Quiros for a vast religious imperialism in the South Sea. Fernandez is said to have sailed, from about 40 degrees south, on a westsouthwest course for one month—and to have discovered a land with well-clad white people and many fine rivers. In the eighteenth century this was taken up enthusiastically by Alexander Dalrymple—to whom it must of course have been Terra Australis—and considered more cautiously by James Burney; it has been variously identified as Easter Island, New Zealand, Australia, the Solomons, Tahiti, and (by the Chilean Vicuña Mackenna) as fantasy; which last seems most probable. Arias himself is most confused, and his evidence is—at best—third hand; Medina makes a gallant attempt to show that Fernandez found somewhere, say Tahiti, but carries no conviction. At all events, what with the Araucanian Wars and Drake's raid nothing could be done—the heretics might hear of it—and any follow-up was put off from day to day until Juan Fernandez died in 1599. The mantle fell on Quiros.

more from the shores of The Spanish Lake (op.cit.)



Of all the mythical isles of gold and silver, perhaps none has had a longer paper existence than Rica de Oro and Rica de PLata, supposedly lying between 25 and 40 degrees north and at an indefinite distance east of Japan. Pedro de Unamuno searched for them in 1587 and, so early, expressed disbelief in their existence; but the Dutch looked for them in the 1640s, the Spaniards did not officially write them off until 1741—and one or other of them appeared in atlases of repute as late as 1927. Findlay in 1870 listed at least eleven highly dubious reports of islands in this general area, and his irritated comments recall those of the more level-headed Spanish officials.

The origin of the fiction is in the report of a Portuguese ship—no name, no date—blown east from Japan to rich islands, with white and civil people; they were known, from a merchant on board, as the Armenian's Islands, later as Rica de Oro and de Plata. What core of experience there may be in the fable is not of vast import, but the story seems to stem from Francisco Gali's voyage of 1584, more important as really bringing home the vast width of the North Pacific. He took over a Manila Galleon which had put into Macao, obviously to take on cargo for New Spain—illicitly, for though the Crowns were now united, their colonies and commerce were by law as exclusive as ever. Gali probably heard the tale in Macao; at all events, he looked unsuccessfully for 'Armenicão'. His report inspired Fray Andrés de Aguirre, who had been with Urdaneta in the San Pedro, to recall an old but seductive document he had seen long ago.

Dahlgren suggests that this account of Aguirre's is a recollection of a Portuguese letter of 1548 read by him with Urdaneta in 1565—two decades earlier!—and that the islands were the Ryukyus (Lequeos), which in the earlier decades of European penetration in these regions were important and wealthy intermediaries between China and Japan, while both Chinese and Japanese were certainly civil people and commonly described by the Portuguese as white. Mere lapse of memory, with lapse of time, would account for Aguirre's placing them east and not south of Japan. Chassigneux finds this reasoning 'very ingenious ... [but] very difficult to accept' and invokes a double typhoon ... legendary and elusive, indeed totally fictitious, as Rica de Oro and its sister-isle were, they ... played a considerable role in the exploration of North Pacific waters.

from The Spanish Lake, by O.H.K. Spate, Canberra, 1979


The Roy Orbison Motel

It was sometime in the early nineties. We checked into a motel in Hamilton. A big old wooden colonial building near the river in the southern part of town. Might once have been a residential hotel, certainly not a pub. Strange fifties decor, tiny rooms, narrow uncomfortable beds. A little old fashioned bakelite radio which played mostly static. Then, it happened: the white noise cleared and we heard the unearthly voice of Roy Orbison singing the Goffin/King song made famous by the Shirelles: Will You Love Me Tomorrow. It was sublime. One of those moments you never forget. When the Big O faded, the static returned ... ever since then I've been looking for that recording, without success. I haven't even been able to find a record of the record, if you know what I mean. At allmusic, 369 versions of the song are logged, mostly releases by the Shirelles, but none of them is by Roy. Was it an illusion then? We didn't hear the DJ back announce it, but I don't think I could have mistaken the voice ...

I returned to the Roy Orbison Motel in July; it's being pulled down soon. The decor hasn't changed, nor the strange pokiness of the rooms, but the bakelite radios have gone. We listened mostly to Polynesian rap and hip hop the night we were there. In the communal kitchen there were three German women and a guy from West Virginia who was studying astronomical physics at the University of Waikato. He got anxious when he realised I was waiting for a pan in which to fry our steaks, emptied his half cooked noodles out of the one he was using into another pot and then cleaned the pan for me. Only he didn't notice that I was already using the sink to wash our vegetables in. The broccoli got bathed in dish detergent. Oh well.

This lost song still haunts me ... it's as if, without it, my life doesn't have the shape it might otherwise have taken.