Barbellion’s Journal

One of the fascinating things about Barbellion’s Journal is that it is contemporary with two works with which it has affinities, but which Barbellion is unlikely to have known: Rilke’s Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge and Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. Rilke’s book was published in 1907, when Barbellion had already begun his Journal; Pessoa’s began during the 1914-18 war but was then laid aside and not revived until the late 1920s. However, both of these other books are more displaced towards fiction and, perhaps for this reason, less urgent that Barbellion’s.

The book Barbellion related most closely to his own was I Am the Most Interesting Book of All by Ukrainian writer and artist Maria Bashkirtseff, about whom he wrote: Oh, Marie Bashkirtseff! How we should have hated one another! She feels as I feel. We have the same self-absorption, the same vanity and corroding ambition. She is impressionable, volatile, passionate — ill! So am I. Her journal is my journal. All mine is stale reading now. She has written down all my thoughts and forestalled me! Already I have found some heartrending parallels. To think I am only a replica: how humiliating for a human being to find himself merely a duplicate of another. Is there anything in the transmigration of souls? She died in 1884. I was born in 1889.

Another fascination with Barbellion is the way in which his Journal resembles a weblog, nearly a hundred years before the form was invented. It is this aspect of his book which makes it seem so contemporary because, unlike many diarists, he is writing for a contemporary audience, for now, since he knew there was no sense in addressing himself to posterity.

I had to break off my reading of his Journal the other night, first because of the weirdness of his entry on the Three Johns (see below) but secondly, and more particularly, because of what he has to say about himself in the next entry but one ... In these moments of ecstasy my happiness is torrential. I have the soul of the poppy flaming in me then. I am rather like the poppy in many ways ... It is peculiarly appropriate. It must be my flower! I am the poppy!!

This was written in May, 1911, before the Great War, before Flanders, long before the poppy became the symbol of the dead in that war. It is – not only in this entry, but throughout the book – as if the war is taking place in Barbellion’s own body, not his body considered as metaphor, but in his actual flesh and blood; while his mind and soul rage against it.

from: The Journal of a Disappointed Man

There are three Johns, and I am much mistaken if in these pages there will not be found something of the John known to himself, and an inkling, perhaps, of the man as he is known to his Creator. As a timid showman afraid that unless he emphasises the feature of his exhibit, they will be overlooked, let me, hat in hand, point out that I know I am an ass, that I am still hoping (in spite of ill health) that I am an enthusiast.

W. N. P. Barbellion, 30th April, 1911


Blind Willie McTell

This morning I woke from what seemed like a very long dream in which I was trying to prove to two friends that Blind Willie McTell is the greatest song Bob Dylan has written. I told them that, as I couldn’t sing well enough, I would have to show them by reciting the words aloud. Then I found that I could not remember them all – even though I memorised the lyrics some years ago, I could only get verses one, two, and five, with none of three and only fragments of four. I went over and over and over it, tediously, in the dream, until I was so bored and frustrated I woke up. Only to find that, waking, I could remember no more than I had in my dream. It wasn’t until I got in here and could log on to the relevant web site that I could get the rest. So. All day, in and out of the other things I do, I’ve been singing:

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying "This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem ... "

W. N. P. Barbellion

The name—the pseudonym—comes, in the case of the surname, from that of the proprietor of a chain of sweetshops with branches in South Kensington, Bond Street and elsewhere; the initials stand for the world’s three greatest failures—Wilhelm, Nero and Pilate. The announcement of the author's death at the close of The Journal of a Disappointed Man is premature, a joke. The fact is, he said later, no man dare remain alive after writing such a book. The Journal went through three impressions in six months. It was both praised and maligned. Some people thought it a ficcione written by H. G. Wells. During the middle part of 1919 Barbellion corrected the proofs of his second book, Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains, which he did not live to see published. W. N. P. Barbellion died properly on the 22nd October 1919.


An Unintended Consequence

I have been getting phone calls from a man called Peter Williams, an Anglo-Indian, as he calls himself, possibly of South African origin. His mission is to eradicate drug use in New Zealand and, to this end, he wishes me to write a book which will help accomplish this and, incidentally, make me a great deal of money. I told him that my already-published books do not make any secret of my own past and present drug use, but this seemed to make him, if possible, more enthusiastic—I could save myself while at the same time saving the country.

He has worked out an elaborate plan to organise the entire populace into hundreds which would then elect representatives to a larger council, which would then elect representatives ... and so on, a vast hierarchy based around threes, thirty-threes, ninety-nines. His last call, which I received as voice mail, really scared me. He said he had dobbed in a number of drug-users who are now sitting in gaol on remand and perhaps I could begin my research by interviewing these unfortunates. I did not reply, and have not heard from him since.

One interesting thing he said is that serious drug-importing into New Zealand was begun by a man called Frederick E Cumming-Bruce, an Englishman who was at Cambridge in the 1930s with Philby, Burgess, McLean and Blunt. Cumming-Bruce is said to have been posted to Wellington as a diplomat. When he was subsequently sent to India, he is alleged to have set up the networks for importing into New Zealand. Importing what? Williams does not say.

I googled the name and came up with a few hits: there was a Cumming-Bruce advising Harold Wilson on Britain’s Gibraltar policy at the time in the mid 1960s when Wilson and Ian Smith of Rhodesia were about to meet on board HMS Tiger at the Rock; the same, or another, is cited in a footnote regarding Botswana in an academic paper written by an Australia historian; another is quoted in a long judgment by the Refugee Status Appeals Authority granting refugee status to two Malaysians in Auckland in the mid 1990s.

But none of these is Frederick E. There is however—or was—a man called Bruce Frederick Cummings, an English naturalist who wrote under the pseudonym W. N. P. Barbellion. His The Journal of a Disappointed Man was published posthumously in London in 1919, with an introduction by H. G. Wells. Barbellion died on the last day of 1917, the victim of a creeping paralysis whose inexorable progress he documents through the years of the Great War. He was 28 years old.

It is a beautiful book. A sample, his entry for February 7th, 1917:

Chinese Lanterns

The other morning as I dressed, I could see the sun like a large yellow moon rising on a world, stiff, stark, its contours merely indicated beneath a winding-sheet of snow. Further round the horizon was another moon—the full moon itself—yellow likewise, but setting. It was the strangest picture I ever saw. I might well have been upon another planet; I could not have been more surprised even at a whole ring of yellow satellites arranged at regular intervals all round the horizon.

In the evening of the same day, I drove home from the Station in a little governess-cart, over a snow-clogged road. The cautious little pony picked out her way so carefully in little strides—pat-pat-pat—wherever it was slippery, and the Landlord of the Inn sat opposite me extolling all the clever little creature’s merits. It was dusk, and for some reason of the atmosphere the scraps of cloud appeared as blue sky and the blue sky as cloud, beneath which the full moon like a great Chinese lantern hung suspended so low down it seemed to touch the trees and hills. How have folk been able to ‘carry on’ in a world so utterly strange as this one during the past few days! I marvel that beneath such moons and suns the people of the world have not ceased for a while from the petty business of war during at least a few of our dancing revolutions around this furnace of a star. One of these days I should not be surprised if this fascinated earth did not fall into it like a moth into a candle. And where would our Great War be then?


Another Darlinghurst Memory

I was walking that road which runs along the long west wall of the old Darlinghurst gaol, going towards Oxford Street. It was a fine afternoon, blue sky and the sandstone of the prison walls drinking the sun, when I entered one of those still and empty moments you get sometimes even in big cities. Nobody around, a hush in the traffic noise, even my footsteps faded. I looked ahead and saw two people coming toward me, a man and a girl. At first I thought it was a hippie guy with one of those fantastical kids hippies used to have, but as they came closer they looked stranger and stranger, he with his leather waistcoat, Ned Kelly hat and nineteenth century boots, she in her dress of motley and her bare feet. She was a child-woman, a sprite, and he was some kind of desperado, probably with a knife in his boot. By the time we drew abreast of each other my heart was hammering and I couldn’t look at them, though I could feel their eyes glinting at me. I let them get at least ten paces past before turning around to look after them, but – and I knew this would be as I turned – there was nobody there. Nobody in the whole wide street, nobody on the footpath, nobody crossing to the other side. They had been there but now they were gone. And there was nowhere they could have gone except into thin air. I kept on walking, no longer afraid, past the gates of that gaol, now an art school, and on into the 1990s.


The Last Time I Saw Adam

The last time I saw Adam, years ago today, was in Hyde Park; at least I think it was him coming slowly toward me down one of the long diagonals, pushing a shopping trolley full of junk. His head was down, his hair was completely grey, and he seemed many years older. I paused. He did not look up. I passed on, not wanting to disturb him on the long shamble graveward. I have since heard it said that once those men and women of the street begin to carry things, it is rare for them to speak to anyone much any more.


The Last Time I Saw Jimmy

Jimmy’s eyes bulged like Marty Feldman’s; perhaps he had some kind of thyroid condition. The skin of his face was pitted and worn, and there were enormous blackheads in his nose. He usually wore an old checked jacket, a grey shirt, and nondescript trousers held up with string; a spotted handkerchief knotted round his neck; and socks and roman sandals on his feet.
I don’t know if Jimmy was his real name. I called him that because Iris did. Iris was the Cypriot woman who ran the corner store in Womerah Street, a blonde with enormous dark eyes which filled with tears at the least provocation. That’s where I first met him - he used to hang around the steps of the shop, chatting to Iris. She liked his company I think, and maybe used to dispense a little charity in his direction as well, although there were other times when she would lose patience and chase him away.
Jimmy never offered any information about himself, and if you asked him a personal question was liable to change abruptly out of his engaging, companionable self into someone both reticent and deeply ashamed; he might even, head down, wounded and sorrowing, turn and walk away. He was not an alcoholic or even a drinker; he would sometimes ask for cigarettes, but never money; and he remains the only street person who ever gave money back to me, as he did one lucky day by the El Alamein fountain, taking a two dollar coin from one of his pockets and pressing it upon me.
I remember him talking about Ford motorcars that day, and this was also the occasion when he delivered a particularly inspired rave, most of which I have unfortunately forgotten, apart from one blazing image, which was that he could see the iridescence of his thoughts turning in the hubs of the wheels of cars passing in the street.
The last time I saw Jimmy was beneath the Coca Cola sign that stands at the top of William Street at the very place where Victoria Street and Darlinghurst Road intersect to make Kings Cross. He was carrying a small cardboard suitcase such as children used to take with them to school, painted all over with cloudy yellow dots. We had not met for a while, and greeted each other with pleasure:
Gidday Dutchie! Hi Jimmy!
At that his face clouded in the familiar sorrowful way; but instead of turning and walking away, he held up one finger to me, like a mime, then ceremoniously took the case and placed it carefully upright against the wall of the building before which we stood. Next, drawing himself up to his full height, with his feet in second position, standing beside his suitcase and indicating it with a graceful theatrical gesture of his hands, he said: My name is Adam.


Jimmy: a memory

Jimmy was a man of indeterminate age and culture, with long flowing grey hair, dark, dirty brown skin, brown eyes, broken teeth, a skinny body which gave off the rank odour of one who sleeps under bridges, on park benches or in doorways, and spends his days trawling the streets of the city. A clochard, the French would say and like one of Beckett's immortal pair, he had a line in existential talk which brought the brevity of time and the darkness of space into annihilating collision with the quotidian. Often, too, he bore marks of a recent beating on his face or body, but if I attempted to find out who was responsible, he would only ever identify his tormentors as those big people.
One day when I was in town I saw him on Liverpool Street and stopped to ask him how he was. He looked away into the distance and in his soft voice said: Legally dead, mate. Yeah, they've just about abolished me. Jimmy's particular obsession was with the chemistry of the body, which he investigated exhaustively for clues to his errant state of mind. I used to see him sometimes in the Kings Cross library reading medical texts, or flicking through periodicals, scanning the mysterious symbols of the psycho-biologists. This day he was inquiring into the scientific status of the resurrection of Christ. How did he get himself to rise up? Jimmy wanted to know. Something magnetic in the blood? What do you think? Or is it just a story they made up to keep us guessing?
What could I say? I felt my own mind tipping as I entertained the possible mechanism of a 2000 year old confidence trick. Yeah, I said, probably. Jimmy nodded, looking away down the street into the warp of Einsteinian space-time. Probably the iron in the blood was magnetised, he said, and that's how they did it. Where you going, Dutchie? (Jimmy, for no reason I know, always called me by this name. The closest he ever came to an explanation was the day he told me: You know, Dutchie, you're half Holland, half New Guinea, and half New Zealand; that's why you're more than a hundred percent!)
I wasn’t going anywhere except to the Green Park, so we walked a couple of blocks down the road together, making desultory conversation. Outside the fashionable Robin Gibson Art Gallery he stopped suddenly and began rooting around at the base of an iron fence bordering the palm garden until he came up with an audio cassette, battered, unlabelled, unplayable, and spent some time turning it over in his hands, wondering what was on it, before explaining he didn't have a cassette player anyway and hiding it again in a chink in the sandstone wall outside the Church of Christ, Scientist.
At the corner where we parted, I felt in my pocket for a coin and came up with a dollar. Jimmy was scrupulous where money was concerned. He always refused the first time I offered, and paid me back whenever he could. I urged the gold piece onto him a second time and he took it. Thanks, Dutchie, he said. I can buy four smokes with this. See you ...
He went on and I turned in to the pub, to that anonymous corner table where I sat and drank until I had no more money left to spend. It seemed incredible that the glittering Darlinghurst life I had once led, in and out of beautifully lit rooms, serenely appointed and full of the latest music, the latest clothes, the latest talk, had disappeared like some childlike vision creeping out of view, leaving me companionable only with myself and dossers like Jimmy. I could not understand how it was I had lost the key to that party world, nor could I quite believe that it continued, presumably, to exist in ghostly parallel to the derelict streets of the uninvited.  
Driving north on the freeway later, drunk and more or less anaesthetised against the cold, I watched my breath steam inside the car as if the freezing element without had colonised the interior. The engine wheezed like an emphysemic because the water pump was going and it was a toss up, as always, whether the part or the journey lasted longer. I was so hungry I could feel the sides of my stomach flap sourly together. Outside, the eucalypt and sandstone rolled away glimmering under a boneyard moon, seeming the domain of a people who have become, like Jimmy, shadows, legally dead yet still existent, living their spectral lives in a wilderness of speaking rocks, under sighing trees, beneath the incessant silver of the stars. 


The Fortunate River

There is an infinity of other islands. There is no reason to say more, only that all have gold and slaves and trade with one another, and the small ones do this in the larger ones that have been mentioned, and the larger ones trade with Malacca, and Malacca with them, spending and bartering the merchandise. Most of these islands have gold, and they also have corsairs and robbers who live by that alone. The corsairs only sail in light paraos and therefore they do not attack junks. And the corsairs who are nearest to Pahang make in Pahang their trading ports, and those near the Moluccas and Banda trade in Bima and Sumbawa and Sapeh, and those near us hold a fair and trade in Aru and in Arcat, Rupat. They bring countless slaves, and therefore a large number of slaves are used in Malacca, because they all go there on account of the great trade it has, more than all the kingdoms and ports over here; and so it is called the fortunate river. There are certainly great sailings from here; no trading port as large as Malacca is known, nor any where they deal in such fine and highly-prized merchandise. Goods from all over the east are found here; goods from all over the west are sold here. There is no doubt that the affairs of Malacca are of great importance, and of much profit and great honour. It is a land [that] cannot depreciate, on account of its position, but must always grow. It is at the end of the monsoons, where you find what you want, and sometimes more than you are looking for.
from The Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires, Vol. 1, p. 228