I first saw him in the morning when I was going to get the newspaper. Walking up Smith Street from the east, the direction of the City, with a cup of takeaway coffee in one hand and a quilted maroon windcheater dangling from the other. A black bag slung from one shoulder. His many layers of ragged clothing all khaki coloured now from age and dust, his trousers hanging down so low I could see his pubes, socks but no shoes on his feet, his eyes protuberant and staring, his face wind or sun reddened, his hair and beard matted and wild. It wasn't until mid-morning, when I went out to find the source of the strangely pitched moaning I'd been hearing, that I realised he had taken up his station on the footpath outside a building opposite and a little down the street from mine. Strangely pitched: I could not tell if they were sounds of pain or of some other emotion, rage or fear perhaps, perhaps even a kind of ecstasy. I was in and out all day so had plenty of chances to observe him. I feel sure he was watching me too, that he recognised me from that first early meeting on Smith Street. Each time I paused to listen to his groans, they morphed imperceptibly into chanted obscenities; and then, when I moved away, took on a derisive, almost contemptuous tone. At one point, in the news agency again, buying manilla folders, I told the woman behind the counter about him; she suggested calling the police and when I said I couldn't do that, her boss said to try Social Services at Ashfield Council. As I returned home with my folders, he was holding in one hand an unopened packet of the cheap 99c biscuits you get in the supermarket while making mystic passes above it with the other. It was then that I thought I had no right to intervene in whatever it was he was doing; and at the same time noticed he was surrounded by food and drink - a packet of pita bread, a 1.5 litre bottle of coke, a can of lemonade, two bananas, a bag of other fruit, a croissant ... towards evening his moaning ceased and when I looked out at about six, he had gone, leaving behind some shoes, the black bag, all of the food and drink, a smart blue blanket somebody must have given him, the takeaway coffee cup ... however, this morning just before ten, driving to Strathfield, I saw him again, sitting on the steps of the old Post Office just around the corner - perhaps he slept the night in the spacious portico there - with yet another cup of takeaway coffee, another can of lemonade and several sandwiches and buns. He still had the maroon quilted jacket but was otherwise bereft of possessions. I was away during the middle part of the day and, when I returned this afternoon, he had gone; but the food and the drink and the abandoned things remain, those in my street and those outside the old Post Office around the corner, like offerings on an altar to some rough god who passed this way, briefly troubling the consciences of the good people of Summer Hill before travelling on to other parishes, other obeisances.
Upon examination I find that the three volumes of Joseph Conrad's Collected Works were bought from Books Buy & Sell (what kind of a name is that?) at 711 George Street, Sydney. Almayer's Folly and Victory cost $4.90 each but The Mirror of the Sea together with A Personal Record, a slimmer volume, I got for just $4.80. I think perhaps my friend gave my $15.00 and I felt obliged to spend it all in the one shop on something that I would remember buying. I don't know why I chose those two works of fiction but do recall that I wanted the autobiographical pieces for a particular reason. Years before, in some library, I had photocopied from some book or other a part of a reminiscence in which Conrad described himself, as a young man, standing watch on the deck of his ship moored at Circular Quay, passing the time in conversation with a fellow down on the dock who was, I feel almost sure, waiting there with a piano that was either to be taken away to a house or theatre somewhere in Sydney, or else loaded onto a ship. I remember the exclamation with which Conrad ends the story: His name was Senior! I wanted to have the book from which the anecdote came and suspected - or knew? - that it was in one of these two autobiographical pieces. Well, now I can't remember if the story is told in The Mirror of the Sea or A Personal Record, nor quite why I was so keen to track it down - unless it was because in those days I wanted to make any connections I could between the larger, especially literary world, and my adopted home. It was as if those bona fide literary connections gave some meaning, potential or actual, to my own presence here. Now, this minute, I have taken the book down from the shelf and, without much trouble, found the passage, which I might as well repeat here: On one occasion I had an hour or so of a most intellectual conversation with a person I could not see distinctly, a gentleman from England, he said, with a cultivated voice, I on deck and he on the quay sitting on the case of a piano (landed out of our hold that very afternoon), and smoking a cigar which smelt very good. We touched, in our discourse, upon science, politics, natural history and operatic singers. Then, after remarking abruptly, "You seem to be rather intelligent, my man," he informed me pointedly that his name was Mr. Senior, and walked off - to his hotel I suppose. Shadows! Shadows! I think I saw a white whisker as he turned under the lamp-post. It is a shock to think that in the natural course of nature he must be dead by now. There was nothing to object to in his intelligence but a little dogmatism maybe. And his name was Senior! Mr. Senior! I also note that, by the bye, the remark of Conrad's that is memorialised on a plaque at Circular Quay comes from earlier in the same section (XXXIV) of The Mirror of the Sea. He is speaking of the harbour: ... one of the finest, most beautiful, vast and safe bays the sun ever shone upon. Conrad is a very quotable author and it seems somehow disappointing that something so bland should have been chosen from the riches available. On the other hand Sydney, like my younger self, has anxieties about belonging (I don't say that I have lost mine) to the larger world, so perhaps in this desire to amount to something is the reason for the choice of that particular quote. And anyway it is difficult to imagine any municipal authority, anywhere in the world, putting on a plaque something like this (from Victory): Dreams are madness, my dear. It’s things that happen in the waking world, while one is asleep, that one would be glad to know the meaning of.
The other day I read an interview with Joan Didion (Paris Review #176, 2006) in which she mentioned that her favourite book in the world and one she re-reads every time she intends to begin writing a new work of fiction, is Joseph Conrad's Victory. Then added that sometimes she just re-reads it anyway. Why? the interviewer asked. The story is told thirdhand, Didion replies. It's not a story the narrator even heard from someone who experienced it. The narrator seems to have heard it from people he runs around with in the Malacca Strait. So there's this fantastic distancing of the narrative, except when you're in the middle of it, it remains very immediate. It's incredibly skillful ... perfectly told. Well I went straight to my shelves and pulled down my copy, which is a volume from the Collected Edition published by J. M. Dent & Sons in 1947, just after World War Two had ended. It's a small blue hardback with nice big type and an easy feel both in the hand and on the eye. I remember buying this and the other two volumes I own from the same set in a small second hand bookshop that was downstairs underneath a sex shop in George Street near Railway Square. I had helped a friend move some things - which friend? what things? - and she had, over my protests, insisted on giving me a small amount of money. With this I bought the three books (the other two are his first novel Almayer's Folly plus Tales of Unrest; and two non-fiction works under one cover, The Mirror of the Sea and A Personal Record). Now I wish I'd bought more, for I seem to remember that, while there was not a complete set in the shop, there were certainly more volumes ... never mind. Anyway, Conrad ... I opened the book and was immediately entranced. A deep feeling of complete relaxation to be in the hands of a raconteur who I know will not let me down, not even once and who will, inter alia, make me smile to myself at least once a page if not more often. Whose story is as engrossing in a re-read as it was the first time; indeed, each time is the first time - again. Who takes me into a world that I know is true and real and, although vanished, still existent. Whose tone is wise and far-reaching and generous and sane; who never insists, never prescribes and never attempts to banish the ebony darkness against which his characters move and his action unfolds. Victory was completed in mid-1914 and first published the following year, while war raged. Its hero is a Swede, its heroine an Englishwoman and their antagonist, a German. There is a fascinating preface about its relationship to the Great War and another in which Conrad discusses the originals of his unforgettable characters. He says it is based upon obscure promptings of that pagan residuum of awe and wonder which lurks still at the bottom of our old humanity. Once again I have the sense of a world that has gone and yet remains, that is vanished and inexistent both. Once again I hear a voice coming out of some fragrant, silent, intensely evocative darkness ... I'm so deeply into it already that I have not yet stopped to think how it is done, why Didion says that it opens up the possibilities of a novel and makes it seem worth doing one again. Beyond this, courtesy of an immemorial mystery: to read is to hear.
This is my family as we were in 1964 or 5 ... not sure exactly but thereabouts. It was taken by my mother's brother, Clive Scott, who was a schools' photographer, perhaps in the garden at 201 Main Street, Greytown, where we lived in a large flat above and behind the Chemist's shop. I had the photo scanned to send to my youngest sister then thought, why not, I might as well post it here as well. You can click for a larger image if you want to.
When I was young, each Christmas Day and on some other days too we would get in the car and drive seven miles or so to the next town, Raetihi, to have late middle of the day dinner at the house of our friends, the Lawns. They lived on the other side of Raetihi, just near the beginning of the road that leads to Pipiriki, in a small wooden cottage up on a hill; with a tiny, enclosed back lawn, hedges along three sides and the back of the house the fourth; and an image I have carried with me ever since is of myself and my sisters and the two Lawn girls, turning one afternoon on the Lawn's lawn. Enclosed gardens were and perhaps still are common in that part of the country, often but not always the hedges were made of macrocarpa, still used as a windbreak on many of the farms. Wonderful hedges that you could crawl right inside of and then along; hedges where you'd find bird's nests with eggs or baby birds still in them; hedges where hedgehogs really did live. The image of us kids spinning on the lawn until we fell over dizzy and hysterical with laughter is one that I retain from our own grander garden at the Burns Street house; but that isn't what I'm trying to recall here. It's something different, something not quite so manic, another order of ecstasy perhaps: we are long and tall and pale of skin, luminous as norns in the gathering dusk; the tremendous sky of those parts is close enough for us almost to touch its pearled blue-green air and yet as far away as the first stars just beginning to prick through; and we are dancing on the lawn as if at once unconscious and supremely conscious; as if, knowing nothing, we know all there is to know; as if the highest sentience is found in the most spontaneous action. I'm one of the kids on that tiny back lawn up on the hill behind the house at Raetihi; yet what I see in my mind's eye is a view from above as the pale children turn and turn, overcome by a solemnity that we will never remember, never forget; then the view suddenly telescopes and, even though the size of the children doesn't diminish or not much, I'm rushing upwards, past the hedges, past the treetops, past the mountain and past the sky itself; finally, strangest of all, the thought comes that, alien, native or sojourner as I may be, in this image is the essence of the life on earth that I have known.
Last Thursday afternoon I drove out west to the evocatively named suburb of Kingswood, near Penrith, to pick up a mannequin that a friend had bought on eBay. It was about a three quarter hour drive each way, easy going once I got onto the M4; the radio was tuned to 2SER FM and, soon after I hit the highway, a show called The Hands of Time began with a recording of Big Brother and the Holding Company, Janis Joplin on vocals, playing at the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967. They were followed by a series of live recordings of others who played that epochal festival: Canned Heat, the Steve Miller Band, The Byrds, The Animals, Simon and Garfunkel, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Grateful Dead. I would have missed a couple of numbers when, at #18 Peppermint Grove, I knocked on the door of a McMansion standing on bare clay ground opposite a beautiful stand of peppermint gums and received said mannequin from an uncommunicative older woman who might once have auditioned, unsuccessfully surely, for The Munsters. A lot of the music was fairly undistinguished - ragged four bar blues, lots of guitar - and the sound quality pretty bad, apart from Simon and Garfunkel (Homeward Bound) and Jimi Hendrix (The Wind Cries Mary). The other highlight was David Crosby introducing a Byrds' number with the news that JFK was not shot by a lone assassin but by several armed men firing from different points, including the grassy knoll. Still ... not a bad accompaniment to the trip. Next morning I visited an old friend, recently returned to Sydney after a few years away up north, and she gave me two books: City Lights Journal #3 (1966) and City Lights Anthology (1974). This second I recognised as my own book that I must have lent to her now deceased partner some time over the thirty odd years we knew each other; it begins with a piece, Encounters with Ezra Pound, written up from 1967 journal notes by Allen Ginsberg, and ends with a hip translation of Un Saison en Enfer followed by a manifesto (Death to miserablism!) and an anthology of American surrealism. The other, which I had never seen before, has a wonderfully diverting series of translations by Roger Shattuck from the Mercure of 1913, titled Apollinaire's Great Whitman Happening, several avant playscripts (The Living Theatre; Alexandro Jodorowsky) and a selection of poems read at Spoleto in 1965, including one by Charles Olson and another by Barbara Guest, along with a Ferlingetti memoir of Pound at that festival. In 1966 and 67 I was a fourth and fifth former at Huntly College in the Waikato and was more or less oblivious to both Monterey Pop and High Modernist American poetry; but even for me as I was then there were connections with this cornucopia: when I read that Ginsberg played Pound a recording of the Beatles' Eleanor Rigby (Pound smiled slightly at the line No one was saved) I remembered other songs I knew at and from that time, including the radio versions of The Wind Cries Mary and Homeward Bound and also Otis Redding's (Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay and Jefferson Airplane's Somebody to Love ... but somehow, today, driving around Centennial Park, the one that lodges in my head is quite different, is in fact a song that might have been a token of an ambition to write that was probably being formed in those years. It starts like this: Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book? / It took me years to write, will you take a look? and is so well known I probably don't need to quote any more lyrics from it or even mention the title.
Last Friday I drove up to Newcastle for the weekend. It was hot but no hotter than it had been for some days, perhaps weeks. During the day the flat stays cool until after lunch but then, as the sun westers, it starts to warm up. Sometimes in the afternoons when I went to lie down, the sheets on the bed were hot, even though no sun enters that room. In the evening there would be coolness outside but the day's heat lingered on inside. I slept with the fan on, not simply to move the otherwise inert air but also to confuse the odd mosquito that had somehow got in and survived. A friend mentioned that when the temperature exceeds forty degrees Celsius, spiders die. So that it was some kind of a relief to be in the air conditioned car heading north on the not-too-choked-up F5. There were bushfires ahead, I could see that from the orange-stained horizon, the smoky light, the haze in the air; but it wasn't until I was north of Doyalson, on the eastern side of Lake Macquarie, that I ran into a real fire. It got very dark very suddenly and I could see in the murk a row of fire engines on the other side of the road, the men in their yellow suits rolling out hoses and getting ready to descend the hill into the inferno in the valley below. Then it was gone, I was past and in the clear again. Two days later, on Sunday afternoon, as I returned the same way there was just the strange greyness of burnt out bush on either side of that stretch of road, the crisped leaves still attached to the branches of the trees, the ground below a field of ash, the desolate wet black smell that rises from a watered-out fire. The weather broke later on that night, a gusty southerly came through about nine or ten o'clock, rattling the blinds and lifting the curtains. By then I was ill, whether from a bug, something I ate or just heat and stress I don't know. I could do nothing but lie in bed, sleeping and waking, for the next fourteen or fifteen hours. I had a persistent sense, when I slept, that I had become square, I mean a square entity, legs tucked up, arms hunched in, like a box. Two days later and there still hasn't been any rain to speak off, just clouds loured down over the city, a few isolated fat drops falling. On the radio I listen to a woman psychologist saying that, while arsonists do not lack empathy, they very rarely show remorse and thus are always likely to re-offend. It's peculiar this after-bushfire weather, there's a melancholy to it, even a sullenness, as if the land itself were ashamed for what it has done to us, rather than, as perhaps it should be, we for what we have done to the land.