Modern Times

the new Dylan album, is out. Bob was quoted in the newspaper the other day saying that nothing sounds good any more and even this, his record, was twenty times better listened to in the studio than it is on cd. Don't think he likes the compression involved in digital formats. Anyway. The journo also asked him if it worried him that people would be downloading it for free off the net. Bob said, no, 'cos it ain't worth nuthin'. I went ahead and picked it up from LimeWire yesterday. My cd player, though, refused to read it this morning, I don't know why. Kept coming up with the err message. So I played it through on my mp3. Now, unaccountably, the cd player's decided it will accept the disc after all, so it's playing into the air as I tap ... this is not a review, it's too soon and anyway, who needs another one? There are already hundreds of 'em. Suffice to say that it sounds quite a lot like Love & Theft, which itself picked up on some of the bluesier numbers from Time Out Of Mind. And that there are echoes of so many other tunes. Bob's like a jukebox of the last few hundred years of popular song. Was reading the other day in a bookshop a description he gave of his 'creative method'. He said he starts out with an old song, usually something from Dixie or from the Carter Family, it goes round and round in his head, sometimes for days at a time, and then the words start to come ... of Modern Times he said: I wrote these songs in not a meditative state at all but more like in a trance-like, hypnotic state. Sounds about right to me.


The Six of Spades

I went out the other day and left all the windows open, to air the flat. A gust of spring blew in the front, scattering the pack of cards on the sill. Bought in Suva nearly twenty years ago, they show on their backs two Fijian warriors contending with clubs before a bure, under palm trees. I let them lie on the floor for a day or so, in case there was some message in the way they fell; if so, I couldn't decipher it. When I gathered them up again I found there's one missing: the six of spades. This, cartomancers say, is a card of overcoming. Of faith and works. It is also the card of the day of the birth of Elvis Aaron Presley and his twin brother Jesse Moses, after whom my elder son is named. The six of spades cannot stop thinking about love and romance. They are dreamers and must be careful that their dreams do not become nightmares. They have to keep on striving until what they imagine becomes real. I do not know what the lack of this card in the deck can mean, apart from an inconvenience while playing Go Fish with my younger son. Does it signify that the positive qualities represented by the card are absent from my life? Or, contrariwise, is it that its negatives no longer afflict me? I'm the kind of person who reads horoscopes only casually and yet always finds that they speak truly to whatever my current dilemmas may be. This is so even when I read horoscopes for birth signs other than my own. I'm always mindful of the epigraph Umberto Eco invented for Foucault's Pendulum yet find its (implied) advice impossible to take: Superstition brings bad luck. Meanwhile, where is the six of spades? Under the sofa? Did it get mixed up with the pile of newspapers on the floor and recycled? Perhaps it blew right out the window and down the street, becoming one of those fugitive playing cards you sometimes find, always face down, and turn over to see what your luck is like today. One thing I learned of cartomancy struck me strangely: my card is the Jack of Diamonds. When, years ago now, I bought miniature playing card packs for my sons, we found an extra card in one of them. It was, natch, the Jack of Diamonds. It's been sitting up there on the bookshelf in the sitting room ever since, waiting for me to find out it belongs here. Waiting, perhaps, with a sardonic glint in its eye, for Elvis to leave the building.


the good oil

Walking back yesterday morning from picking up my laundry, I caught a whiff of motor oil coming through the open door of the local garage and it triggered a memory. Huntly, 1966 or 67. I had a holiday job at Geo. Smith & Sons, the local Ford dealers, with a showroom plus workshop plus service station down at the bottom of the hill on the main drag. Lord knows how I got it. I used to pump petrol, detail cars, do odd jobs around the place. The pay was derisory. Something like thirteen or fourteen dollars for a full, that is, forty hour, week. First time I'd worked proper hours, only my second job ever, after the paper run. One of the things I had to do was fill up the bottles of oil that stood on racks next to the bowsers. You decanted it out of big drums in a little dark shed out the back. For some reason that remains obscure to me, I became erotically obsessed with one of the lighter grades of oil. Castrol, perhaps. The smell of it. The texture. Its viscosity ... I must have been in the full hormonal flush of adolescence. It was around this time that my nipples swelled up and became sensitive, even sore, to the touch. This troubled me immensely but I never told anyone about it. I thought perhaps I was turning into a girl. Or something. Many years later I did tell a friend about this and he said he'd had the same experience. If only I'd know that it could happen to others as well! Anyway, the oil had something to do with this strangely occluded awakening. I used to pour it over my hands and then rub them slinkily together, there in that dark shed. Never did anything else that I recall. There was no other, as they say, issue. No guilt, either, though I wonder now how I would have explained myself if Geo. Smith or his brother had walked in on me. After massaging my hands together for a while, I'd wipe them off on a piece of cotton waste and take the filled-up bottles of oil out to the racks by the petrol pumps. That was the extent of this peculiar obsession, which lasted for the couple of weeks I worked there and then disappeared forever. Motor oil does nothing for me now.


my father's shaving brush

The bristles are falling out of my father's shaving brush. Except it's not really his, it's mine. His one, which he used as far back as I remember, had a wooden handle and real animal hair - horse, was it? Or pig? Over the years, it wore down until it was just a prickly stump a couple of inches long, but he hung onto it, even after he switched to using that spray-on stuff with a minty smell and the consistency of mock cream. I don't know what happened to it. This one has a plastic handle and nylon bristles; I bought it for his seventieth birthday but I don't think he ever used it. He died only a couple of months later and it was returned to me still in its packet. So I've been shaving with it, off and on, ever since. Sixteen years next Tuesday. He would have been 86, an inconceivable age for someone as wrecked as he became, though his brothers - one older, one younger - are still alive. I don't know what to do with it, the 'new' one I mean. The way it leaves nylon bits on my face is intensely irritating but it has some kind of weird status in my mind, as a memento mori I suppose. Perhaps I should put it away in the bathroom cupboard and just leave it there, the way his old animal hair one was left? Or should I consign it to the beyond?


if you wanna be a bird ...

A crow flies heavily through the blue evening air then makes a graceful swoop up onto the finial of the steeple. It looks like a small black flag as it surveys its domain: lord or lady of all it commands. I recall how when I was a child I wanted to be a bird. Then a jet pilot. Later, at the Masterton Air Show, the thundercrash of Vampire jets breaking the sound barrier so terrified me I gave up the ambition on the spot. I would be an archaeologist instead ... until I realised that they are more likely to spend decades squaring out ground and sifting sand than they are to uncover a gold Mask of Agamemnon or similar. That left me with writing. I still want to be a writer. And a bird ... now I remember I missed that crow leaving its perch on the gothic spire though I did see it flying away through the Prussian blue sky. A spotted Malaysian dove moves from the gum tree onto the tiled roof of the next door building and sits there, making its lovely, lost sound: kor kor kor-korrr, kor kor kor-korrr ... Sunlight on red clay, the stillness of morning, the pink breast below the black and white speckles on the neck, an answering call from somewhere behind us. A honey bee stumbles over the pebbles on the deck then blurs its wings and goes, leaving me earthbound, bound to the earth, dreaming still, as when a child, of flight.

books on the new shelf

Overland 183
Brewer's Rogues, Villains & Eccentrics - William Donaldson
Gallipoli - Les Carlyon
The Thallium Enthusiasms - Noel Sanders
The Book of Signs - Rudolf Koch
Victorian Anthropology - George W. Stocking jr.
Poems of Fernando Pessoa
Otoliths issue one, parts 1 & 2
The Godwits Fly - Robin Hyde
The History of the Roman World, 753 to 146 BC - H. H. Scullard
Embers - Sandor Márai
Crete: The Battle and the Resistance - Antony Beevor
The Quest for Origins - K. R. Howe
Dr Johnson & Mr Savage - Richard Holmes
The Prince and The Discourses - Niccoli Machiavelli
The Portuguese Seaborne Empire - C. R. Boxer
Manhood - Michael Leiris
Claude Lévi-Strauss: an Introduction - Octavio Paz
How are Verses Made - Vladimir Mayakovsky
Call Me Ishmael - Charles Olson
Lichtenberg - Aphorisms and Letters

When imagination fails, we make lists - Anon

(There's another one over at dérives)


In Crocodilopolis

A plane passes into the empyrean, turning red-gold as it goes behind the steeple and climbs towards the light of the sun that has set here but blazes still over the western plains. A cloud like a crocodile, trailing the extravagant curlicues of a sea horse, drifts slowly northwards, eating the wind. Astral Weeks on the stereo, its nostalgic accents becoming ever more unbearable as they fade and fade but never reach vanishing point. I am beset by phantoms. Some have names and shapes, others, more inchoate and more dangerous, do not, or not yet. Are these future hauntings that I hurry towards? They are all succubi, and if I name and shape them, as I so easily could do, will they only possess me further, sooner? What to do with these seductive almost-presences? I do not know ... recall how on that terrible night two years ago, the precognition of this place where now I live came: I knew, wherever it was, it looked west, as the places I lived at the beach, east facing all, did not. Was that the tilting of some kind of fulcrum, did the see-saw shift irrevocably then? The smoke I suck in, the alcohol I gulp, are they hastening my death, my west? No need to search for an answer to that one. Jupiter now hangs yellow in the sky. The moon waxes. The proofs lie on the table in the next room, but what do they prove? Enterprise? Or folly ... the Master has approved my delusion, it is beguiling enough for him to have been moved generously to words, all eighteen of them. People disappear every day, Maria said. Every time they walk out of a room, was the incontrovertible reply. Shall I walk out the door? Yes, but not yet. Those future ghosts, those almost-presences, are they the importunate dead, beckoning? Houri? Or do they call to another kind of rendezvous, in some genizah where I will find the damaged, the discarded, the heretical? That which cannot be proofed or proved? Sebek, crocodile, horse of breath, sea, see, repair, the broken bodies of the dead ...


Recall reading, years ago now, in the wonderfully titled Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain that the subjects of Russian experiments in precognition and clairvoyance performed better in fine clear weather than they did when it was cloudy or rainy; and that electrical storms threw all but the strongest mediums off completely. This recall prompted by the weather today: a dark grey cloud has descended over the City and it has been raining incessantly since before dawn. I'm trying to do the final read through of the proofs of Luca Antara, but have had to pause because I feel that thick grey cloud is not just out there in the world but has also invaded my head, raining softly, not unpleasantly, pearled obscurities across the synapses of my brain. So I will go out instead and watch Antonioni's The Passenger, a new print and new edit of which is showing in Paddington. I will emerge later from the cinema, after dark, wearing a new identity, hurrying anonymous through the crowds with my umbrella raised, looking for Maria Schneider among the belles of Oxford Street.


Aphrodisiac Junction

I don't know what's happening to me. When I drive, I hardly sleep and what sleep I do have is more like wakefulness. Yet strangely interpenetrated with dreams. Very early this morning, before the one fugitive kookaburra that lives around here started chortling, I saw before me a page of prose in which there was mention of a couple of places in a part of Sydney that doesn't exist, or doesn't exist yet. The first of these was Burke's Aphrodisiac; the second, Aphrodisiac Junction. I quite often dream in print, sometimes even in verse, which I generally see before me the way it might appear in a book; but it's usually all gone by the time I wake, apart from, as on this occasion, the odd word or two. As far as I can tell, Burke's Aphrodisiac is a small beach place, a little cove on the coastal outskirts of the Metropolis. Probably squatted in the Depression, with title given the squatters later, as happened at a number of places round here. The Junction is up on the hill above the beach, where there's a few shops, where you turn off to go down to the water. Burke might have come from the street name, in which case it should be Bourke; yet I seem to recall it was spelled only with the U, in which case it must refer to the Burke who went with Wills. This must have ended up in the dream because I rang a friend the other day to ask him the name of the German watercolourist who went with, and died on, that doomed expedition (Ludwig Becker). That's it; that's all I know. Apart from one other thing: this seems to belong in the story of Jakob Oort, whose name also came to me in a dream. Now I want to go and live there.


today is the horse's birthday

Q: What's Australian for William Shakespeare?

A: Willy Waggadagger.

An Australian, an Irishman and an Englishman walk into a bar. The barman says: Is this some kind of joke?

A horse walks into a bar. The barman asks: Why the long face?