letting go

The next time I went down into the laundry the moth had died. Those ragged bits on its wingtips a sign of decay. Did she lay eggs in my papers before she fell? The things I will uplift sometime soon and take to the new place might have a few secrets concealed in them; or they might just be dross. I'll have a look when they arrive. When I arrive. New glasses, I have new glasses too, as well as a new place to live. The government remains the same. And the book is written, all four hundred pages of it. 105,000 words, many of which are not different from one another, the same words in different orders, or with different neighbours. It will have to be revised now, that process of shaping which I love so much, which is so unlike the drafting process: as if you had chosen to climb a particularly steep hill which, in the end, you only managed to reach the top of through sheer bloody-mindedness, discarding clothes, oaths, graces, style along the way. The vista is your brief reward as you survey the domain of your wanderings, seen all at once and only once as a whole; followed by the long, contemplative stroll back the way you came, picking this up, leaving that behind, moving something else somewhere else. Until you arrive back at the beginning again. And then ... let it go.


Twice Travelled Trip

I've been back two weeks from my jaunt through south east Asia. Somewhat steadier on my feet than I was, though I still can't unblock my ears. This was no pleasure trip ... this was work: I was looking for the concluding section of the book I've been writing this year, which has the same (working) title as this weblog. Strange thing to do, in a way, since I deliberately made minimal preparations and so had very little idea what I might encounter. I did however have a mental checklist of things I hoped I might find, questions I might be able to answer, places I might get to see. From that point of view it was a success; from the serendipitous point of view too: there was enough of the unexpected, the bizarre and the moving to keep me interested, nay, fascinated. Now I'm writing it all down, or all that I think is worth relating, mentally travelling again the route I took physically just a short time ago. And yet it all seems oddly distant, as if it happened in another time from that I live in now.

The coincidence which pleased me most was the announcement of the discovery of little people on Flores just as I was about to go there: a friend emailed me in Bali with the news. But the counter-chorus of sceptics has already begun. An eminent Indonesian archaeologist is quoted in today's paper as saying he believes the skeletons may be those of modern humans. Well, they could be; Adam, the anthropologist I met on the flight from Labuanbajo to Denpasar, hinted as much when he said the local people in that part of Flores are also very small. It is peculiar though, the way 'science', which has spent so long insisting upon the irrationality of world-wide beliefs in little people, is so quick to claim credit for their (re)discovery when it happens. Why didn't they believe us? Because there was no proof, of course. But ... proof? What is that?


Carpet Moths

Earlier today I went down to the laundry under the house to put a load of washing on and noticed, clinging to the door jamb, a big triangular carpet moth with intricate patterns on its wings, including a deep red central spot either side. Nothing unusual there ... except this: I first noticed one of these moths at a flat I moved into in Glebe in 1983; it was on a painting a friend had given me which was hanging in my study. What is unusual is that, every year about this time, at every one of the many places I have lived in the twenty odd years since then, one of these moths has appeared, as if, somehow, I carry the seed of it with me as I go. Does it live in my luggage? My papers? My soul? I am about to move again although I do not yet know where to: will the moth, or its descendants, accompany me there? I'm not exactly sure why, but I hope so.


A Town Called Alas

On Sumbawa there is a town called Alas. We passed through it in the dead of night, the night before the US election, the night of November the 1st, as it was in that part of the world. Everyone was awake, all the lights were on, the greeny-blue, low wattage lights they use in that part of the world. Every house had a TV set on also, brighter than the lights in the room, showing soap operas, dreamy laid-back music videos, advertisements for things the people watching or not watching would never be able to buy, interspersed with Muslim hymns and sermons and rants. The people were awake not because of the US election but because it was Ramadam and they had spent the day fasting and sleeping or fasting and working and were now spending the night eating and talking or not eating and not talking. All the young men with nowhere to go and nothing to do, sitting outside watching the traffic (except there is no traffic apart from the occasional bus like ours roaring through the night), playing guitars, or chess, talking and not talking, waiting. For what? Alas, like every other town we passed on that strange hot night, under the yellow moon, a gibbous moon, was a town of hovels with, every now and then, a splendid, no, resplendent mosque, where the light was not that subaqueous greeny-blue but bright white, a tiled, clean, well-lighted place where white-robed men and women sat and talked or didn't talk, sang or did not sing, with, in almost every case, a white curtain made of sheets pinned or sewn together slung across the space to separate, I thought, the men from the women or perhaps the children from the adults ... the hovels explained the mosques, or the mosques explained the hovels, I couldn't decide which it was, but in that part of the world it is understood that a mosque will be made available if there are ten believers who want one, and some towns, the larger ones, really do seem to have a mosque for every ten hovels. But not Alas. Alas was just a small town, a few hovels, one mosque, and still that crowd of young men sitting outside on the stoops in the hot night with or without their guitars, waiting. Small children, dressed in rags, ran after the bus as we passed down the dusty single main street of Alas, yelling out in shrill high voices, boys and girls but mostly boys, dropping behind as we turned the corner and changed down and headed further east, where the road ran out of town and along a low shore with palms and the shadows of islands further out, behind which the yellow moon, the swollen moon, rose up in the brown sky. Alas.


On Flores

Coincidentally, I was on my way to Flores when the announcement was made of the hominid remains, called Homo floresiensis, found at Liang Bua. There's, of course, a heap of information out there on the web about this, but I have a few things to add which come from local knowledge, or local gossip. The site is near Ruteng, a town in western Flores, about four or five hours by bus from where I stayed at Labuanbajo, on the extreme western end of the island. I didn't make the pilgrimage to Liang Bua because I couldn't face another bus journey, having already crossed Lombok and Sumbawa in this manner in the previous few days; besides, I didn't find out where the site was until I was leaving the island, by plane - the man sitting next to me, Adam, who was from Ruteng, told me.

However, while at Labuanbajo, I did visit another cave where, the guide, Sebastian, told me a Dutch pastor by the name of van Houven had unearthed a human skeleton in 1945; this, too, was of a small person and these remains are now in the museum at Maumere on Flores. This cave affected me strangely. We climbed down into it by ladder then crawled through a passage in the limestone, past great thick stalagmites and stalagtites, into a vast interior space, quite dark, yet pierced from above by the roots of banyan trees running down the walls and across the floor like electrical cables or water pipes. As I stood up in here, breathing the dry, faintly ammoniac air, I felt a strange dizziness or vertigo. There was a deep humming sound resonating through the cavern, from the bees which made their hives high up on the rocks in the blinding sunlight outside. Where did they find the human? I asked Sebastian. Just there, he said, pointing to a nearby rock floor. Later he showed me a complete turtle, fossilised, upside down, in the roof of the next cave; and a fish, likewise turned to stone, in a wall.

According to Adam, a trained anthropologist, van Houven had also worked at Liang Bua ... but I have not yet been able to find out more about this man who was, incidentally, a Catholic not a protestant, because the Dutch sent only Catholics to Flores, where Portuguese Dominicans had been before, while reserving nearby Sumba and western Timor for the protestants. Adam also told me that the local Manggarai people who live in villages near the site of the find are renowned for their tiny stature. How big? I asked. He held his hand out into the aisle of the plane, about a metre and half from the floor. There was a sense in his conversation of, not exactly scepticism, but rather a kind of amusement that the whole world was talking of something that he and others already knew a bit about. I asked him if he'd heard that the Dutch in the 17th century gathered reports of little people living on Flores, which they dismissed as folktales. He smiled. The Dutch, he explained, did not really come to rule Flores until the early 20th century.

The traditional houses of the Manggarai people are conical and arranged in concentric circles around a round, walled, sacrificial arena. Their rice paddies, too, are round, divided up in sections like a spider's web, with each clan receiving a slice - amazing to look at. They wear black sarongs, breed droopy stomached black-haired pigs and beautiful miniature horses. Two brothers, they say, came out of the west to found their kingdoms; their original houses have turned to stone. In a Manggarai village two houses face the altar stone: the one on the right is the Mbaru Gendrang, the chief’s, all ceremonies begin here, and here the open-ended gendrang drums are hung; the one opposite is the Mbaru Tambur, where the two skinned tambur drums are hung. Here ceremonies end.



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.



September 24: Auckland-Sydney

October 12: Sydney-Wellington

October 15: Wellington-Napier

October 18: Napier-Auckland

October 20: Auckland-Kuala Lumpur

October 27: Kuala Lumpur-Denpassar

November 7: Denpassar-Darwin

November 10: Darwin-Sydney


Pigafetta at Mattan

Those people go naked, wearing only a piece of cloth made of palm around their shameful parts. They have as many wives as they wish, but there is always a chief one. The males, both large and small, have the head of their member pierced from one side to the other, with a pin of gold or of tin as thick as a goose feather; and at each end of this pin some have a star-shaped decoration like a button, and others, one like the head of a cart nail. Often I wished to see that of some young men and old men, because I could not believe it. In the middle of this pin or tube is a hole through which they urinate, and the pin and the stars always remain firm, holding the member stiff. They told us that this was the wish of their women, and that if they did otherwise they would not have intercourse with them. And when they wish to cohabit with their wives, the latter themselves take the member without its being prepared or rigid, and so they put it little by little into their nature, beginning with the stars. And then when it is inside it stiffens, and remains there until it becomes soft, for otherwise they would not be able to withdraw it. And those people do this because they are of a weak nature and consitution.

from Magellan's Voyage, a Narrative Account of the First Navigation, Antonio Pigafetta, trans. & ed. R.A. Skelton, Yale, 1969



Had an email yesterday querying the statement in my title block: Luca Antara is provided etc etc. Was it a denial of those who believe Luca Antara is/was a part of Australia mapped in the early 1600s by Portuguese from Malacca or the Moluccas? Not at all, I said; rather, the sentence is there because of a felt analogy to the process of writing. But it sent me back to the source ...

I chose the quote at random: when I was setting up this site, I opened my copy of Eredia's Description of Malaca and my eye fell upon that sentence. It seemed apt. But I hadn't investigated its provenance. What it is, is J.V. Mills, the British civil servant who made the English translation of Eredia's book in 1920s Malaya, summarising the arguments of an earlier scholar, the Victorian R.H. Major, against Eredia's alleged discovery of a Great South Land.

It was Major who first proclaimed Eredia the discoverer of Australia, upon the basis of a map he found in the British Museum. He rushed into print with his find, then learned soon after that Eredia's official expedition never left Malacca because of the Dutch blockade of 1604. In a state of acute mortification, Major resiled from his claim then turned upon Eredia. It is no exaggeration to say the controversy ruined his life; in the process, he attempted to demolish the credentials of the man who caused his fall.

One of the many confusions that have arisen around this episode relates to the meaning of the Portuguese word descobridor. It doesn't mean what its English equivalent, discoverer, now does; rather it refers to the exploration and exploitation of a land, the discovery of its potential if you like, not of its mere existence. Eredia called himself the Descobridor because he had a commission from the King of Spain & Portugal to go to Luca Antara and find out what riches were there; of these alleged riches, a twentieth part would remain his personal property.

Noel Peters' work on the map found in 1946 in the National Library of Rio de Janeiro (alas, not Buenos Aires) by a Dr. Mota Alves suggests that the expedition stymied by the Dutch might have been the second in that time to that part of the world. Perhaps Eredia—or someone else—had gone earlier, on a smaller scale voyage, mapped the Tiwi islands, and now planned to return with greater resources; like Abel Tasman fifty odd years later, who took two voyages, several years apart, to complete his circumnavigation of the Great South Land.

Noel Peters thinks the confusion has arisen because the quote in the title block above is not ascribed to its source. I don't wish to weight the words with chapter and verse but, for the record, here is the detail: the sentence occurs at the bottom of p. 189 of J.V. Mills' 1930 translation of Eredia's Description of Malaca, Meriodional India and Cathay, reprinted (#14) by the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1997 with a new introduction by Cheah Boon Kheng.


What Harry Said

This research, if that isn’t too portentous a word, into the life of my friend Harry Graves, took place sporadically during the last decade or so in Australia and New Zealand. It was random and serendipitous, but one of the things I thought I’d do while in Auckland this year was to try to track Harry down again and find out the ‘real’ story.

I rang a mutual friend who lives on Waikehe Island—the oldest of the many extinct volcanoes on the Tamaki Isthmus—and asked her if she knew where he was. She said he lived out in the Waitakeres, the range of hills to the west of the city, themselves the remains of the second oldest and by far the largest of Auckland’s volcanoes. He has no phone, she said, or if he did she didn’t know the number; and no street address either. But she had visited him once and gave me directions as to how to get there.

It took me a while but I found the place in the end, perched up in the bush looking west over Karekare, the black sand beach where the opening scenes of The Piano were shot. The house was eccentric and charming, clearly home-made, built in a series of connected modular sections climbing up the steep section, with many curious little balconies, all made of timber weathered to a silvery sheen by the incessant winds of that wild coast. But there was nobody home. I peered through the window and saw a room set up as a home studio: piano, guitars, amps, mikes, recording equipment and so on, disposed as if part of a work in progress. What to do? I wrote Harry a short note, with my cell phone number, and suggested he give me a call; but he never did.

However, not long after this abortive visit, late one night as I was walking home along K Road, outside the Pink Pussycat I saw a sleek grey car pull up, with a sleek, grey-suited man at the wheel: that bullet head, that cropped hair, those faded eyes which did not want to look into mine. Harry said he was in a hurry, he had business to attend to, there was no time to talk. Come on, Harry, I said, we go back years. Surely you can spare me half an hour. He looked at his watch, looked up and down the street, looked at the red door of the Pink Pussycat, looked at his watch—a Rolex—again, sighed and said Alright.

We went to a coffee bar further down K Road called Brasil. It seemed appropriate. Harry had a short black while I had a Cascade. I was smoking Wee Willems but he said he didn’t smoke or drink anymore. Or take drugs. He seemed preoccupied, evasive, almost ... sad. He said he didn’t want to talk about the past, but agreed to answer a few questions. I asked, he gave his answers. Here they are:

He got the scar on his head when a piece of masonry from the Berlin Wall flew out and hit him during the celebration of its demolition.

He has never read any Wittgenstein.

Yes, he did once know some people from the Mr Asia syndicate and had I seen that one of them, name of Miles, had just been found dead in Bali? Another, name of Beri, died in a Christchurch jail a few years ago.

He once did own a copy of Robert Lowell’s Imitations and it could be the one that Ray has in Sydney. The annotations were part of an attempt to translate the poems back to the language in which they were first written. He said he thought his version of Le Bateau Ivre and some of his Villon pieces were better than the originals.

He never wrote any songs for Nick Cave, or gave him any words. The only song he could think of that he might have had an influence on was The Weeping Song. He and Nick were driving through the barrio of Rio when he, Harry, said something to the effect that the sound of the barrio was the sound of people weeping. He thought Nick might have picked up on that.

He still has his songbook and his current project, when he gets time away from his business interests, which are considerable, was to record a definitive version of every one of his songs for posterity. Including Dolores and Everything’s Everything. He would let me know when the cd(s) came out. I don't expect that he will.

The dog was a pure blood dingo, he had to put her down because her howling upset the neighbours. Her name was Azaria.

Afterwards I walked with him back up towards the Pink Pussycat. We barely spoke. Outside, he shook my hand and gave me a quick, almost apologetic look. Don’t tell anyone, will you, mate? he said, then turned and went inside.

Harry Graves is not his real name


Pigafetta meets the King of Zzubu

Diplomacy old style ... for Jean Vengua

When we had come to town, we found the King of Zzubu at his palace, seated on the ground on a mat of palms, with many people. He was quite naked, except for a linen cloth covering his private parts, and round his head a very loose cloth, embroidered with silk. Round his neck he had a very heavy and rich chain, and in his ears two gold rings hung with precious stones. He was a short man, and fat, and had his face painted with fire in divers patterns. He ate on the ground from another palm mat, and then he was eating turtle eggs on two porcelain dishes, and he had four jars full of palm wine, which he drank from reed pipes. We made reverence to him as we presented what the captain had sent him, and we told him, by the mouth of the interpreter, that it was not in return for the present which he had given to the captain, but for the love which he bore him. Then we clothed him in the robe, put the cap on his head, and kissed the glasses that I presented to him and that he accepted. Then the king made us eat those eggs and drink from the said reeds. And meanwhile his people told him all the good words and assurances of peace and faith that had been given to them. Then the king wished to retain us for supper, but we made our excuses, and on this we took leave of him.

The prince, nephew of this king, led us to his house, and showed us four girls who were playing on four very strange and very sweet instruments, and their manner of playing was rather musical. One played on a taborin after our fashion, but it stood on the ground. Another was striking, with a thick stick wrapped at the head with a palm leaf, the bottom of two instruments shaped like a long taborin. Another was striking another larger instrument in the same manner. And the last, with two other similar instruments, one in one hand and the other in the other. And they struck in harmony, making a very sweet sound. These girls were very beautiful, and almost as white and as tall as ours. They were naked, except that from the waist to the knees they wore a garment made from the said palm cloth, covering their nature. And some were quite naked, having long black hair and a small veil round their head, and they go always unshod. The prince made us dance with three of them who were quite naked. And we had refreshment there, and then we returned to the ship. Those taborins are of metal, and they are made in the country of Sinus Magnus, which is China. They use them as we do bells, and they are called aghon.

from Magellan's Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Navigation; by Antonio Pigafetta; trans. & ed. R. A. Skelton, Yale, 1969

Lords and Retainers

Dave the Rave put me on to a guy called Ray who used to be in Dragon before they got famous. He’d lived in that house in Double Bay, he remembered things nobody else knew about any more because they were all crazy or drug-fucked or dead. Ray was a second-hand goods dealer who had a house down the bottom of Erskineville full of baroque clutter. Searchlights, dentist’s chairs, bathroom tiles. He moonlighted as a stage hand at the Opera House. He was bitter about Dragon because he’d left before the money started coming in. But my question was: did he jump or was he pushed?

Anyway he said what happened was they did a gig in Melbourne, in St. Kilda, the pub down there near the pier where there used to be a gig, and the support band was The Birthday Party. In their early punkoid phase. And Harry just went, fuck! these guys are amazing. And rocked up afterwards and said he wanted to work for them. Of course they already had roadies plus plenty of wanna-bes so they told Harry to fuck off. It was too late, he’d already told Dragon he was leaving, he didn’t even go back to Sydney to get his stuff, he just stayed in Melbourne.

Ray said what Dave said about Harry reading poetry was true, because he had the actual copy of Imitations which Harry left in Double Bay along with all his other stuff. He showed it to me—a little Faber & Faber paperback with wine stains and cigarette burns on the cover and the most amazing inscriptions all the way through, tiny little runic marks made with a pencil, more or less unreadable ... Ray said I couldn’t take it away and study it, it was too valuable, one day when people realised who Harry was the book would be worth a lot of money.

Ray said the way Harry got to work with The Birthday Party was by getting them drugs which they couldn’t get that cheap or in such quantities anywhere else. That’s how he penetrated the inner circle, hitting up with Nick and the others or at least being there while they were hitting up. Loyalty is what makes a good roadie, absolute fealty both to the music and those who make the music. A band and its roadies are like Lords and their Retainers. Harry became a Retainer to Nick. That’s what Ray said. They were like that, he said, holding up his thumb and his second finger and clicking them.


Et j'ai vu quelques fois ce que l'homme a cru voir

I was actually more interested in finding out how a guy from the remote King Country ended up mixing with international rock stars than I was in Harry Graves' reading habits. Then I met Dave the Rave at a party in Bellevue Hill. Dave was a roadie from Auckland who ended up in Sydney; we had mutual friends. I didn’t get much out of him at the party because, while we were standing in a line leaning against a fence sampling the joints that were being passed along, Dave took an enormous toke on one then fell over flat on his face on the concrete path and split his head open. There was lots of blood but when he woke up Dave said he’d had worse things happen and just kept on partying. He was that kind of guy.

We met up a few weeks later at gig in the Darlinghurst Squats—it was Vix’s band of the time, MX Warheads—and had time for a bit of a talk. Dave said Harry came up to Auckland in 1971 was it? to the Led Zeppelin concert at Western Springs and just never went home again. Somehow or other he ran into Jenny Tits, as she was known, and started sleeping on her floor in the flat she had in St. Kevins Arcade overlooking Myers Park. She took him around to Mandrax Mansion in St. Mary’s Bay one day and he ending up getting a room there. And it was there, Dave said, that he met the guys from Dragon who’d come up from Hamilton to do a gig in the big upstairs room in that house.

He followed the band to Sydney and got peripherally involved in the Mr. Asia thing, Dave said, which intersected at various points with the Dragon extravaganza. There was this house in Double Bay where the band lived, to which guys like Greg Ollard, if that was his name, used to come. Some of the Dragon boys were notorious users of hard drugs, as everyone knows, though I don’t think Harry was. Anyway Dave said an interesting thing, which was that, when he got to know Harry at Mandrax Mansion, he always carried around a book with him. What book? I asked. It was a poetry book, Dave said. Imitations. By Robert Lowell.

Well that seemed like an odd thing for Harry to have been reading, a book of translations of various foreign, mostly dead, mostly European poets by a mid-twentieth century vaguely aristocratic American from New England, also dead. It was the 19th century stuff he liked, Dave said. Heine dying in Paris, Baudelaire, the Rimbaud poems ... knew them all by heart, could recite some in the original French. Le Bateau Ivre, for instance: Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles ...



The girl’s name was Victoria Lake. Well, she wasn’t a girl, she was a woman, and everyone called her Vix. Vix had been in and out of bands in Sydney for a long time. Everybody knew her. She was tall, blond, striking ... I mean six feet tall, a big woman with big hair, lots of make-up and a thrilling voice. She was in love with Harry, had been for years. Probably the only reason she took up with me—we were never more than friends—was because she knew I knew Harry, had known him since five years old or whatever it was.

I haven’t described Harry yet. He was tall, lean, rangy, with faded blue eyes and yellow hair which he always wore short, accentuating his bullet head. He went grey early, as yellow-haired people sometimes do, but it didn’t make much difference because he always got a number one anyway. There was something about his mouth, forever framing words he never actually spoke. When he did speak it was in short, abrupt sentences like from the bible. The time I asked him about the scar above his left eyebrow he said: That was when I was in Berlin, as if that explained everything.

Vix said she knew the story of the scar. She knew all sorts of things about Harry, some that she got from him, some from other people. She was like a walking compendium on Harry Graves. I used to tell her she knew more about him than he knew about himself. She’d smile this slow smile and shake her head. No one knows that much about Harry, she’d say.

She told me about his songbook. His legendary songbook, full of words and music he’d written over the years. She’d seen it: an old red foolscap hardback notebook which was originally meant for double column accounting that Harry had written all over. She’d heard him play guitar and sing, which he hardly ever did, at least not in public. She said there was no-one like him. He’d traded licks with Nick and Dave and JJ and all these guys and they all thought he was great too. She hinted that some of Nick’s songs weren’t really Nick’s at all, they were Harry’s. But Harry doesn’t mind, she’d say wistfully. He doesn’t care.

He didn’t care much about her either, which was a great sadness to Vix. Why not? I wondered but never asked. I thought she was great. I would have done anything for her. She knew that of course. The world’s full of people who love other people who don’t love them, she’d say. Vix had a couple of stand-out tunes she always did in whatever band she was singing with. They were Harry Graves songs. One was about a hooker who used to stand with the other girls out on the Canterbury Road just down from the big Mobil gas station. This girl called Dolores. She was Spanish, from South America, Peru. She got murdered. The song was a ballad, it was just called Dolores, it was a song made out of a name, the grief of a name.

The other song was kind of metaphysical. A soul song, simple words that made a complex meaning. Vix used to belt it out at top volume with the band roaring behind her. She could play sax and did her own solo so that her big deep rich voice and the big deep rich notes she blew sounded almost alike. That song was called Everything’s Everything. Vix used to say that Harry copped the lyrics from something written by Wittgenstein but I didn’t believe that. Harry wasn’t a reader.

Or was he ... ?



In one of Ralph Hotere's paintings we are shown a square which is not / a square. Is a diamond. In which there is a square. The painting is orange, but some parts are more orange than others. A green plastic strip is attached, in which there are numbers. 3 2 1—the countdown. The painting is ZERO. Or is it the square? Either way, it is where we take off from.

Mark Young, Ascent Vol. 1, No. 3, 1969; quoted in Ralph Hotere: Black Light, ed. Mary Trewby, Ian Wedde et al, Dunedin/Wellington, 2000.

When Mark was in Auckland in July we found a set of Ascent magazines in Jason Books but #3 was missing. I've since learned that it is extremely hard to come by—others have looked for it without success. The painting Mark's talking about is illustrated in Black Light but I haven't been able to find an electronic image of it. Nor is much else of Hotere's extraordinary oeuvre available on the net yet. That will surely change ...


More about Harry Graves

Harry Graves was just a guy I went to school with. He used to give me cigarettes behind the bike sheds ... Pall Mall Filter, in the red packet. He sometimes pulled the buttons off my shirts in fun fights that were fun for him I guess but to me were more like real fights. He was stronger than I was and liked to let me know it; he’d stop short of causing real pain but I always knew it was there, trembling just beyond the scissors, the headlock, the half Nelson.

We moved away from that town when I was ten but a few years later I ran into Harry again. He was doing a course in metal working at the Mechanics Institute in the town we lived in then. He wore blue jeans, a white t shirt with his cigarettes folded into the sleeve, Beatle boots. We stopped on the bridge and talked for a while. I was still a schoolboy but he was already a man. He was into Country music.

There was a dance at the local Leagues Hall I went to with Julie Till who was a farmer’s daughter from out of town. Harry was there with some of his mates from the Mechanics Institute. He had his eyes on Julie and she on him; but she was a good girl (as opposed to a nice girl) and anyway her father was picking her up in his car after the dance. The band was called the Sapphires; later on they changed their name to the Surfires, wore Hawaiian shirts and covered Beach Boys songs, as well as making up a few of their own. Harry reckoned they could play alright but their music was shit.

Harry finished his six week course and went back to the King Country. We didn’t keep in touch or anything like that but I bumped into him years later in Australia. It was at a gig in Sydney, at the Tivoli. This band from Melbourne called Hunters and Collectors. There were about ten of them on stage, chanting and beating on big metal drums with iron sticks, while the back projection showed rare old footage of stone age tribes picking their way across the gibber plains.

Harry was one of their roadies. He still kept his cigarettes in his sleeve but he was into drugs now. We snorted some speed backstage while the gig was still going on and later went up to Arthur’s in the Cross. Beautiful women gathered around Harry but he was more interested in talking than fucking. He was going to Berlin. He knew the guys in the Bad Seeds and reckoned he would be working with them. He was into Gospel music, white soul, all that religious shit. Preacher man don’t tell me/Heaven is under the earth/I know you don’t know/what life is really worth ... they’re lines from a Bob Marley song but reggae is faith music too.

So Harry went to Berlin, he went to São Paulo, he went to Boston, he went everywhere. I heard from a girl I knew who’d had a scene with him that he was running cocaine from Tahiti into Sydney, the mule on the last leg of a journey that started in Bogotá. One day I saw him up the Cross, he was in a bad way, trembling and paranoid. He was wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase which fell open while we were talking in the street. Inside there was bottle of Johnny Walker Red and a carton of cigarettes. Gauloise. Nothing else. He said he’d made a lot of money but people were after him and he was going back to Auckland to invest in the property market.

Next time I saw him was in the corner bar at De Bretts. He had a beautiful white dog; he said she was part dingo. She sat under the table while we drank single malt whisky and smoked cigars; you could buy slim Dutch cigars for six dollars from the humidor. Harry had bought some warehouses in West Auckland. He was a developer. He was back wearing t shirt and jeans, a leather jacket, was into fitness now, swam two kilometres a day in the Olympic Pool.

He was remote from me in the old familiar way. He’d come a long way, he had a long way to go; this was just a station on his way. He talked about Nick Cave, Van Morrison, hearing Loretta Lynn live at the Ryman. He said it was important to distinguish between Johnny Cash and Johnny Paycheck. When he left the bar it was just getting on to evening. The dog got up and followed without him having to say a word or even look at her. I saw him pause on Shortland Street to re-light his cigar, in black silhouette against the yellow sky, a man and his dog. And his peculiar fate.

There’s more to Harry Graves than this.


Harry Graves

The need for self expression is one of those pieties we grew up with. That there was such a thing as a self, and that it needed expression, were taken for granted. Most of us began early, in the primers, writing compositions with titles like What I Did On The Weekend. It was natural to write these pieces in the first person singular, the tense we use to narrate the day's adventures or misadventures, to describe the progress of a work project or a love affair, to tell the tale of a trip somewhere.

When we tell stories about things that have happened to others, we naturally use the third person: he or she or they. The equivocal second person, singular or plural, can be used to refer both to self and other, sometimes so ambiguously it is hard to know exactly who is meant: It isn't good for you to smoke cigarettes.

Narratives can be constructed out of each and every one of the voices we use to describe real life experiences. If you (who?) use the first person, there are certain presumptions a reader will bring to your narrative: that it is true, that it really happened, that another participant/observer of the same events would tell essentially the same tale.

These are not the same assumptions a reader will bring to something written in the second or third person, although they still pertain to some degree. To say When I was eight years old I started smoking cigarettes is not the same as saying When Harry Graves was eight years old he started smoking cigarettes. Is one more an act of self expression than the other? Perhaps only if we know that Harry Graves is talking about himself.

In the second formulation, there are questions we will immediately want to ask: Who is Harry Graves and why did he start smoking so young? These questions do not arise in the same way in the autobiographical version, in part because the use of the first person singular suggests that such a statement will not be made without a (probably immediate) qualification. We confidently expect the autobiographer to explain why he or she did what he or she did. Otherwise why tell us?

But Harry Graves ... who is Harry Graves?


... we live cooped up in a room and paint the world and universe on its walls ...

José Saramago: The History of the Siege of Lisbon


More goldtops

That was the autumn of the goldtops; but none of my subsequent experiences with mushrooms was as intense or as revelatory as the first. There was a gradual diminution of the power of the intoxication, unarrested by a steady increase in the dosage. I found I needed to eat two or three or four to feel even mildly stoned and, eventually, reached a point where the amount I ingested began to make me feel ill before any sensory or psychic alterations took place. Regretfully, one day I gathered up all those that remained in my favourite field by the clay pans, took them home, put them in a blue glass flask with crenellations all round the bulb, and filled it with vodka: this, my friend assured me, would provide a stimulating drink in a few months time, when my rapidly acquired tolerance for the drug had faded and I could once more appreciate the reiterated mysteries of psilocybin.

Nevertheless, during those few weeks I walked all over the local landscape, and found many wonders: a shelf of grey sandstone overlooking the Hawkesbury, where the outlines of dolphins and turtles and whales had been pecked into the rock, which I have never found again; a fish—probably a taylor, or kahawai—similarly pecked into the rock at the entrance to a dry cave high up in the cliffs at the southern end of the beach; the sunfish I found another day on the furtherest seaward edge of the great tessellated shield which, bisected by the Patonga Road, stretches across the top of the ridge near the Trig Station.

My favourite carving was one of a man on a flat shelf of sandstone on the way to Flathead Beach, a small cove around the rocks from Pearl Beach. This man has a crescent shaped headdress; he lies on the rock with his arms and legs outspread, a spear in one hand, fish in his armpits and another between his thighs, just below the end of his pecked pecker. Long lines in the rock emanate from these fish, one pointing up towards the mouth of the great mangroved and islanded estuary of Brisbane Water, the other out to the rocky tip of Lion Island: surely two very rich fishing grounds. There is also, another friend told me, an image of a wallaby carved next to where the man’s spear point is, but I have never been able to see more than a few vague lines there.

It was as if, when I was on psilocybin, some veil drew back and I saw further and more than I ever would have seen straight; or that the richly inscribed landscape of that place could only be read by one whose gaze was untrammeled by day-to-day concerns; but whether this drawn-back veil was in my mind or a distinct quality of the land itself was never clear to me. All I knew was that a characteristic of these rock engravings is that they are sometimes as clear as the lines on the palm of your hand and sometimes not just inscrutable but well-nigh invisible.

Some of this has to do with natural conditions of course: whether it has been raining or not, whether it is morning, noon or night, overcast or sunny, the way the light falls at different hours of the day. The best time for seeing rock carvings is early or late on a sunny day, when the slanting light picks out their shapes; or, alternatively, on an overcast day after rain, when the freshly watered grooves gleam under a white sky. That said, there are still times when viewing conditions are ideal and yet the images will not appear, seeming to have withdrawn themselves into the rocks, as shy as some wild creature, reticent as a child, perhaps, or cunning like some ancient gnome.


A man in search of his soul

A friend told me there was a mushroom containing psilocybin which grew locally; he described this fungus in detail—small, with a dusty gold skin and, underneath, yellow-green gills tending towards cyan blue; the stems were slender and fragile, and they arched outwards at the bottom to make a characteristic pediment where they entered the earth. These mushrooms, called goldtops, tended to be found after rain where small impromptu streams carried the spores down forest paths; or under trees, also after rain. There was a particular spot in Patonga, the next village to ours, where they grew thickly in the park that runs along the shores of the estuary as the creek broadens among mangroves before narrowing again as it comes down from Patongalonga.

I was never able to find this particular spot, but I did identify the mushroom itself. My friend only ever ate the stalks, throwing the heads away because he thought there might be too much toxicity in them; but when I came to try them it seemed a waste to do that, so I would eat the whole thing. They had a pleasant taste, slightly nutty, inevitably mixed in with pieces of sandy grit adhering to the stem. I had my first one at the beginning of the path to the waterfall, where there is the remains of an old saw pit and a deep deposit of yellow clay, on the margins of which the goldtops sometimes grew. This day there were a couple of others I also picked, dropping them into my shirt pocket for later, then carrying on into the bush.

The sky was overcast, full of soft grey clouds moulded by wind currents into smooth creamy swirls. Below, the still, slate-coloured sea was cut through with purple lights like mica glints. Apart from the cries of birds sounding loudly, intermittently in the inert air, it was quiet as I walked up the path to the waterfall, which at this point runs past tennis courts and parallel to the road to a rich man’s house. You cannot see house or courts, but the concrete block fire station could be glimpsed through trees on the left, with a wide patch of burnt ground around it from when the Bush Brigade’s last barbecue got away on them. Then all of that, the rutted, clay road, the acrid blackened ground, the weeds encroaching from suburban gardens, fell behind as I entered the hushed green shade of the bush.

The path winds along the side of a ridge until it reaches the Ochre Caves, a massive outcrop overhang within which the orange and white sandstone, sculpted by wind and water into filigrees and curlicues like those in the morning's sky, is graffitied with names and dates of otherwise forgotten visits. Here there is a place where you can stand and hear the falling water echo from the rockface, very loud, right next to your ear, sounding much closer than the real waterfall chinking and glinting through the trees. I climbed up the damp slippery rocks to one side of the wide lip of stone over which the water cascades, and came out into a broad basin where the stream runs into a shallow pool. Water boatmen sculled the meniscus, their blurred shadows flitting behind them on the rust orange bottom. I crossed over to the other side and climbed up a sandstone shelf to the next level.

Here the stream meanders along a narrow causeway, with bush close on either side, the eucalypts leaning their still leaves over, the wattles dropping golden pollen down. Tiny beaches, miniatures of those on the sea shore, gather at the margins of the flow. I kept on walking up until the path faded to stepping stones in the creek, then went along a low sandy bank flanking a wide, deep pool with a rope swing hanging over it from the branch of a leaning tree. It was warm, and there was no-one around, so I took off my clothes and slid naked into the brown water, letting the encrusted salt from my last sea swim wash away. Then I climbed up over another smooth rock shelf to Pearlie Ponds.

Pebbles of red and yellow ochre lie in the water of the ponds, and people use them to draw with on the flat or sloping stone faces of the stream bed. There were fish and birds and trees, a rainbow, hearts with arrows, names, initials, dates, spirals, chevrons and random other marks. When it rains, the pigment washes off, leaving vague, faded outlines behind and sending coloured streams down over the rock. Sometimes charcoal from burnt trees is used, and then the black, too, runs down to darken the water. Impromptu fireplaces were scattered about the gallery, so it resembled a primitive campsite. Where the water pours over the shelf into the swimming pool below, the soft sandstone has been carved by hands or worn away and then it seems that this place is neither ancient nor modern but one where time has gone so far it curls around and finds itself back at its source.

The track leaves the course of the stream here and follows the contour of the ridge, but I continued in the bed itself, climbing up over massive tumbled boulders to another, smaller pool and then on past two huge rocks with the gap between them dammed by the flood-borne debris of fallen trees. The bush on the banks thinned to scrub and the sandstone outcrops showed pink and white and grey through the sparse tough vegetation. The ubiquitous grey-green was lit here and there with tiny trails of intense purple, or the bright crimson spider crouch of a hakea or grevillia, or the soft lavender of a small shrub with almond-shaped leaves. I began seeing spiders.

The first one was enormous, at least two hand widths across, poised on the underside of a great rock protruding out over a still black pool. Its reflection—attenuated thorax, bulbous abdomen, great jointed spindly legs—rose to meet it from below, like its Siamese twin, joined at the tail. A rock spider, I guess. Perhaps they stalk their prey across the quivering meniscus of the water, or perhaps they wait for some unwary creature to come down under on their rock. This one was immobile and anyway on the far side of the pool from where I was; the only way to approach it was through the dark water and, though it was not cold, I could not even imagine doing that.

Further on, as the slopes above get drier and harsher, the slit of the creekbed becomes even lusher and I stepped ankle deep in grasses which released a delicate fragrance as they were crushed beneath my boots; hearing the falsetto creaking of frogs stop as I came near, I began to run into the webs of golden orb weavers. These are large grey spiders with yellow and black legs, which spin an intricate web out of a tough and elastic thread of golden silk. They are complex, three dimensional webs around which, when they are established, gather the smaller subsidiary webs of smaller, subsidiary males, poised in their suburban outposts waiting for the opportunity to visit the centre and consummate their longings.

What is remarkable about the female golden weaver is the black and white pattern she bears on her abdomen. As I continued my walk, and found more and more webs blocking my path, slung between walls of greenery which, by now, almost met across the creekbed, these abdominal patterns seemed more and more like masks. Each one was different, yet each conformed to the primeval pattern of our kind: two eyes, a nose, a mouth, with tattooed or painted chin, cheeks and forehead. I did not feel threatened by these beings grimacing up at me; it did not alarm me to find, as it were, a sprite on the back of every spider: rather it seemed as if the richness of the world had disclosed another detail of itself, beyond, or behind which there were more, as yet hidden revelations to be had.

Deep in the valley, near the cliff face at its head, the big trees returned, with their smooth grey or white trunks, their gouts of red or amber gum oozing from wounds in the bark, their immemorial presence. Here the scrub was so dense on either bank that it literally joined above the surface of the water in a thick mass I had to push apart in order to go on, and there was no place for spiders to spin their webs. The stream was a tiny trickle, a mere thread of liquid in the electric green swampy grass where the sticky tendrilled red beaded pods of tiny carnivorous plants lay open.

At length I came to a deep, dark cleft in the rock, full of black water, with a mossy brown shelf at one end and a little stone bud at the other. Ferns and grasses leaned over the still surface. The silence of the afternoon was a deep bass hum under everything. I bent and saw my own face rising towards me. My lips touched the surface and the cold, colourless, sweet tasting water flooded into my mouth. I felt myself falling forward head first into that fissure and disappearing forever ...

The water dissolved the unspoken words of thought off my tongue, the voices in my head diminished and faded and a profound emptiness, echoed in the stillness of the grey green trees and grey tumbled stones on every side, took their place. It was as if I was myself at the heart of a web made, not out of golden silk or silver thought, but from the very silence itself. It was profound, by which I mean depthless; it was endless, by which I mean that everything there was, was underpinned by that silence, even the intermittent birdsong or the returning creak of the frogs; and as I moved it moved with me.

I left the source of the stream, climbing directly up one side of the valley, following the sandstone scarp around until I met the path, going on to the top of Gad’s Hill, then walking eastward along the Hope Range, that line of cliffs which defines the northern bank of the Hawkesbury River as it flows into Broken Bay. From there, you can see the whole panorama of the river system, with its humped bush-covered headlands, its long snaky inlets, its wide blue waters crossed by random white lines of boat trails and deeper, more subtle flows of tidal warps or riverine currents.

Coming down from the Hope Range, just past the massive orange overhang where pieces of chert and flint lie in fine sand by a cave mouth, a tree had fallen across the track. It was an old dead grey spike with its roots still clawed into the sandstone, charred black along one side in a bushfire, which probably became waterlogged in a storm and collapsed. The trunk split as it fell, scattering comb from a beehive across the brown metal and red clay track. I picked up a piece of it and sniffed the faint honey aroma rising from the waxy hexagonals. In some of the cells there were dead bees; they were the native kind, stingless, with striped conical abdomens. A few live ones were still clinging to the pale golden brown of the newly fractured comb left in the stump or hovering confusedly above the deep ebony of the old. Someone had been there before me, clearing debris from the track, taking whatever honey there was.

I went on, walking back down the fire trail with the piece of honeycomb in my hand, and saw a honeyeater singing on a branch, its neck taut and elongated, its throat swollen to squeeze out the liquid notes, in black silhouette before the yellow atrocity of the sky. Goldtops, I thought, over and over; golden weavers; golden sky: it seemed there was a perception behind every perception, the way on a sunny afternoon there is a shadow behind every tree. This regression is infinite in the merest sense of the word. It goes forever. The feeling of a moment draws back to reveal a glade beyond which comes the song of a lyre bird imitating a car alarm before the black buzzing of an aeroplane in the depthless blue of the sky. A line from Illuminations came: Arrivée de toujours, qui t'en iras partout. Arrival of always, which will go everywhere.


Buddha's Tooth

During the Governorship at Goa of that priest-ridden bigot Viceroy Dom Constatino de Bragança (1558-61), a sacred relic, a tooth of the Buddha, was captured at Jaffnapatam in Serendip (Sri Lanka, that is, Ceylon). The King of Pegu (Myanmar, that is, Burma) offered to ransom the tooth, but the Viceroy refused. He had the tooth publicly pounded to pieces with a mortar and pestle by the Archbishop of Goa. Later it was said in Serendip that the tooth the Portuguese destroyed was a fake, and that the real tooth still resides at the Temple of the Tooth at Kandy. Bragança is quoted as saying that he would prefer for the honour of the royal estate and the glory of His Highness, the conversion of the poorest Canarim in this island to all the profits of the land thereof and carracks laden with pepper, and that he would risk everything for the salvation of a single soul.


Wektu Telu

On the island of Lombok, east of Bali, on the other side of the Wallace Line, there exists a religion called Wektu Telu. Devotees think of themselves as Muslim, but aspects of their practice vary considerably from orthodox Islam. For example, they don’t pray five times a day, they don’t make the haj to Mecca, they fast only three days at Ramadam instead of a month, they will eat pork.

Wektu Telu is an amalgam of Islam, Balinese Hinduism, and the animism of the Sasak people who are native to Lombok. Wektu Telu is Sasak and means result (of) three. This refers to the three religions, but also to a series of related trinities: Allah, Mohammed and Adam, who are analagous to the sun, moon and stars, which are in turn related to heaven, earth and water.

Allah is the one true God, Mohammed the link between God and human beings and Adam a being in search of a soul; a further elaboration of threes represents the human head, body, and limbs as creativity, sensitivity and control. Three main duties are encouraged: belief in God, resisting the temptations of the devil and co-operating with others by being helpful and loving people.

A temple at Lingsar, built in 1714, combines both the Balinese Hindu and Wektu Telu faiths. It is divided into two sections on two levels. In the Hindu section, a shrine faces towards Gunung Agung, the sacred volcanic seat of the gods on Bali. In the Wektu Telu section, a pond is home to a population of sacred eels. Visitors make offerings of hard-boiled eggs to these eels. Nearby on an altar there are numerous mirrors donated by Chinese business people to bring good fortune. A number of stones wrapped in strips of cloth, connected with Sasak animism, rest here also.

Wektu Telu believe that during birth, four siblings escape from the womb: blood, egg, placenta, amniotic fluid. The afterbirth has to be treated with care and respect, or else the four siblings might harm the child. Offerings are made and the afterbirth buried, then the child is scattered with ashes. When it is 105 days old there is a ceremony for the cutting of its hair. Later, between the ages of 6 and 11, the boys are circumcised and carried through the streets on wooden horses or on lions with tails made from palm fronds.

After death Wektu Telu bodies are washed in the presence of a holy man, wrapped in white sheets and sackcloth then placed on a platform while the Koran is read and people pray to the spirits of ancestors. In the cemetery the body is interred with the head facing Mecca, while the Koran is read first in Sanskrit, then in Arabic. Carved wood, for a man, and decorative combs, for a woman, are placed on the grave. There are ceremonies on the 3rd, 7th, 40th and 100th day after death. After 1000 days, holy water is sprinkled on the grave and the wooden offerings removed and replaced by stones.



About this time last year I became interested in the question as to how the Muslim expansion into South East Asia happened. I found the answer (I think it was there) in C.R. Boxer’s The Portuguese Seaborne Empire; it was relatively straight forward. Arab trading vessels would sail east on the monsoon; wait for the pancoraba or change of monsoon, then sail back with their cargos of Japanese silver, Chinese silks, Indonesian spices, Persian horses, Indian pepper. In the time they spent ashore the sailors would form liaisons with local women; children would be born; and, on some subsequent voyage, an imam would be brought east to educate these children. Mosques were built and Muslim communities thus grew up naturally around trading ports, without any need for aggressive proselytizing or military conquest. The seven voyages of Sinbad the Sailor are essentially a history of this early period of Arab voyaging into the Indian Ocean and beyond. Later, Gujarat merchants, also Muslim, continued to transplant their religion into the trading lands.

Something similar happened with the Chinese, who seem to have sailed in southern waters intermittently over a period of a thousand years or more. Zheng He, the 13th century voyager, was of course Muslim himself, but culturally he was Chinese, he was representing a Ming Dynasty emperor, and was in the habit of placing shrines to Tianfei, the Taoist Sea Goddess, at the places he or his admirals touched. There is said to have been one of these shrines at the site where Darwin now stands. Chinese communities grew up around trading ports in the same way the Muslim communities did, with the other religions – Hindu, Buddhist, Animist – accommodating the new faiths. It is fascinating to learn that the port of Malacca which, when the Portuguese took it in 1511, they accounted the richest city they had seen, was at that time only a hundred or so years old; and that, politically, an alliance between the first rulers of Malacca and the Ming Empire was of crucial importance to the survival and growth of the entrepot.

The Chinese voyages ended abruptly about 1433; seventy odd years later, the Portuguese learned how to navigate the Indian Ocean from a renegade Muslim captain on the east African coast and a quite extraordinary campaign of violence was unleashed in an area which until then had remained relatively peaceful; for trade took precedence over every other activity, and religious tolerance was the rule, not the exception. But even the Portuguese adapted. For example: during the 16th century the Dominicans established missions on the island of Solor, off the east coast of Flores in Nusa Tenggara. Communities of Christianized locals who married Portuguese grew up around the Dominican Missions, becoming the people known to themselves as Topasses and to the Dutch as Black Portuguese. The Topasses were active traders, especially in sandalwood, throughout the archipelago and were particularly successful in Timor, where descendent populations survive today, as they do in Darwin itself, which has been a haven for Timorese exiles since 1975.

The derivation of the word Topasses is a matter of some complexity. Tupassi (Topasses), purportedly comes from the Hindu word for hat, topi, because the Topasses regarded themselves as Gente de Chapeo - People of the Hat. They were also known as the Larantuqueiros, from the islands of that name off eastern Flores. The Dutch, whom they fought for several hundred years, called them Swarte Portugueezen in all official documents. In the language of the Atoni Pa Meto population, who had the longest established contact with them on Timor, they were known as Sobe Kase - Foreign Hats. Yet another variant, among the Rotinese, on the small island at the western tip of Timor, was Sapeo Nggeo - Black Hats. Topasses were multilingual. Portuguese was their status language, also used for worship; Malay was their language of trade; and most Topasses spoke, as their mother-tongue, a local language of Flores or Timor.


The Dutch Discover Australia

It is not a very interesting story. It is, in fact, a story of unsurpassable dryness. We have been told that 'it was the spirit which had cut the dykes that gained the Spice Archipelago for Holland'. But there was very little of 'the spirit of the dykes' in the use which the Dutch made of their gain. The trail of business is over the whole story; indeed the whole story is nothing but a trail of business. Complete and singular is the contrast between the Spaniard and his successor. It is the contrast of the Cathedral full of men with all human virtues and vices, and the Factory wherein is neither virtue nor vice, nor even men, but one thing only, desire to make money. In place of Don Quixote we have a bagman, and by no means an 'inspired bagman'. In place of voyages of knightly mariners, following the gleam of a golden continent, we have a dull story of the gropings, along rocky and barren shores, which cut the utterly uninteresting continent of New Holland out of the beautiful Spanish dream of Terra Incognita. In place of quest of a great 'mine of souls' we have long inventories of things for barter for 'the benefit of the Company'.

from The Discovery of Australia (1922), by G. Arnold Wood, revised (1969) by J. C. Beaglehole


The Island of Gold

The Lamacheres Fishermen of the Island of Solor, while engaged in fishing, were caught in a storm so fierce that they were quite unable to return to land; so they yielded to the force of the storm, which was such that in five days they were carried to the Island of Gold, which is situated in the Sea off the opposite or outer coast of Timor, which is properly called the Southern coast.

And so the Fishermen reached the land of Gold and attempted to find food, as they had eaten nothing during the period of the storm. They enjoyed such excellent good fortune that while they were raking the earth in search of Yams and Potatoes, they found so much Gold that they filled their Boat until it could carry no more cargo.

After taking in water and provisions necessary for the return journey to their native Country, they waited for another storm in the opposite direction, and when the storm came they went from the said Island of Gold until they reached the Island of Ende Grande, where they discharged all their Gold, much to the envy of the Endes.

In consequence, these same Endes and the Lamacheres Fishermen determined to repeat the voyage, and when they were all about to set out both the Endes and the Lamacheres were overtaken by a fear so great that they did not dare, owing to ignorance, to cross the Sea of Gold.

And it may well seem that the Almighty God desires to entrust this work to Manoel Godinho de Eredia, the Cosmographer, by Order of the most happy Lord Count Admiral, Viceroy of India intra- and extra-Ganges, that the said Eredia may be the instrument of effecting an increase in the new Patrimonies of the Crown of Portugal, and of enriching the said Lord Count and the Lusitanian Nation.

from: Report on the Golden Chersonese or Peninsula and on the Auriferous, Carbuncular and Aromatic Islands, drawn up by Manoel Godinho de Eredia, Cosmographer, 1597-1600.


Mabo (Un)Explained

Dampier’s Cape Mabo is a misreading of Tasman’s Cape Maba, derived in turn from the 1616 voyage of Le Maire and Schouten which rounded and named Cape Horn and then crossed the Pacific looking for islands of trade outside the voracious purview of the Dutch East India Company.

Their ships were sequestered by said company upon arrival in Batavia, en route to which they passed along the north coast of New Guinea and saw the northern and eastern coasts of Halmahera, where Cape Maba is, or was. There is still a town, and a provincial district, called Maba on Halmahera and the people of this area – the northern coast of the south eastern peninsular – speak an Austronesian language also known as Maba. The name of the cape would thus seem to originate in local usage.

The Mer Islands, where Eddie Mabo came from, are a world away to the east; they are in fact the most easterly of the Torres Strait Islands, volcanic remnants where the people speak a non-Austronesian language related to those of mainland eastern Papua to the north. There is a form of ancestor worship in the Mer, or Murray, Islands called the Eastern Malo Cult after the originating ancestor; but it is a long stretch to imagine how the labial could have morphed into a voiced plosive.

The Celtic goddess Mabo Mabona, the ‘true lost word’, is in some recensions identifed as masculine, the Irish Apollo, god of music, sports and sex, named in ogam, like his female equivalent, as Mabo or Mabona. In this version of the tradition, his symbol is the phallus, and he is a god of youth. Lost word, god of youth, ancestor, precursor of justice, name, name ...



Last night a bookseller told me that, when the current scandal broke, Norma Khouri had just delivered a second book to her publishers; this book will not now be published, at least not by Transworld. What kind of book is it? I asked. In the style of the last one, she said. Non fiction.


Is that 'oui' or 'non'?

I’m currently fascinated by three stories running in the press, all with a characteristically Australian ambiguity with regard to the distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’:

The first is the Norma Khouri saga, which gets stranger and stranger. I heard her publisher at Transworld, an Englishman, say this morning on the radio: You know, if the book is non-fiction, everything within it has to be true. Whereas Norma herself was quoted in yesterday’s press saying that, although her book included inventions, she would never call it a fiction or a novel. There’s a huge area for speculation here. My question is: what does the ‘non’ in non-fiction actually mean? (NB Khouri’s book was withdrawn from sale in Australia; in France, the publishers ordered the printers to prepare another edition.)

The second is the latest twist in the Children Overboard imbroglio, wherein it seems John Howard (aka Little Johnny Jackboot) may finally get some sort of comeuppance for lying to the Australian people in the cause of his re-election in 2001. Photographs of refugees in the water after their ship had sunk were said to be pictures of children thrown overboard from a different ship by other refugees as blackmail for getting entry into Australia. Howard and his cohorts milked this issue for every last vote, despite advice from both military and civil service personnel that the claims were false.

The third is the on-going story of the outback murder of British backpacker Peter Falconio, whose body has never been found. Various people – about ten in all – have claimed to have seen the missing man since the murder. In a section of committal hearing transcript published in today’s NZ Herald a policeman asked a defence counsel if any of these people had also spotted Elvis. We have no reports of Elvis sightings, he replied.


Cabo Mabo

Have been searching for other early references to Cape Mabo, so far without success. The word does not appear to be Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch or French. Dampier, who says the name was Dutch usage, was following charts laid down by Abel Tasman. Tasman made two voyages through the northern Australia-New Guinea area, one in 1642-3 (when he 'discovered' Aotearoa), which took him, on his way back from Tonga to Batavia, along the north coast of New Guinea, and another the following year, when, coming from the west to seek a way through to the Pacific, he assiduously mapped the coast of northern Australia from the western side of the Gulf of Carpentaria as far as Port Hedland, without, however, sailing through Torres Strait or perhaps even realising the passage was there. If he originated the name Cape Mabo, it was likely that he did so on his first voyage, since it appears to be (or to have been) on the western extremity of the north coast of New Guinea. Andrew Sharp's 1968 edition of the Voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman apparently includes a detailed concordance of Tasman's place names; but both copies are presently out of the library. Like this blog, my search is frozen or at least on hold.



Was browsing last night through William Dampier's account of his 1699 visit to west Australia and parts north and east when I came across this sentence:

"We passed by many small islands, and among many dangerous shoals without any remarkable occurrence till the 4th of February, when we got within three leagues of the north-west cape of New Guinea, called by the Dutch Cape Mabo."

Mabo in Australia has a significance equal to that of Waitangi in Aotearoa; it was a case pursued through the courts by one Eddie Mabo, a Murray Islander from Torres Strait, for ten years which finally saw the overthrow, in 1992, of the British doctrine of terra nullius, which alleged the whole country to be empty of civilized humans and therefore denying Aborigines land rights.

What kind of word is Mabo, I wonder? Surely not Dutch: is it then one they picked up from local usage? Eddie Mabo grew up as Eddie Sambo, but took the name of his Uncle and Aunt who adopted him during his adolesence. But the word ... where does the word come from?


friday 13th

something weird going on here - have recovered my blog but find that all my links are in limbo, frozen in the state of my last visit to whichever one it was ... some hoodoooooo

What's going on?

My latest post refuses to appear on the main screen ... but it's up there somewhere. Will see if this one makes it ... how distracting!!


A man likes not to be ignored even by a railway accident.

W.N.P. Barbellion

I’ve always felt a special relationship with the Tangiwai disaster, merely because it happened not far from where we lived. We knew people who died. My father went out to see what he could do to help – he was waiting at the station for a family friend, Bruce Tabb, to arrive from Auckland on the south bound train and heard the news there. When he got to Tangiwai, he found the road bridge had gone down as well and that all those who needed helped were on the far bank of the river. His contribution was to drive a local doctor, Doctor Jordan by name, right around Ruapehu via National Park and the Desert Road to Waiouru and thence to Tangiwai, a journey of some fifty miles in the middle of the night. I often wonder what he did then, but have no way of knowing now. I think I must have forgotten to ask him. I still feel I ‘own’ the disaster, but in fact it had nothing to do with me. I was not even two years old at the time.