I've started a new site, called dérives (the link is there on the right) where I'm going to post everything that arises directly out of cab driving. That which has arisen already is already there. And has been deleted from here. Why? I felt like sequestering those work related experiences. I was starting to feel they conflicted with the more, or differently, serendipitous pieces that I put here. Serendipities versus stochastics perhaps (thanks, Mark!) Anyway, that's what I've done. dérives is unlinked at present, apart from this portal here. Who knows what will happen there? Or here for that matter.


El Camino Real

This is my summons of a dream, my dream of a summons. To the other side of the mountains you must go. There, Joseph Conrad waits.

The town is flat, dusty, brown. A dusty inland town in the wastes of Gondwanaland. The address is wrong. One hundred and ten El Camino Real … there’s no such place.

I walk down the street parallel. Dark pigment stains the adobe red, green, black. Murals on the walls of all the houses. Through a door I see in the ochre light these paintings the colours of earth. A woman turns, smiling. Her body is a deer pierced by arrows.

Through the arcade and back to El Camino. A friend joins me, together we search. A woman approaches, the same one older or another, I do not know. She takes my friend’s hand and draws her into the cool dark.

Joseph Conrad lies back on the big bed, his head monumental, his expression grave. He tells my friend: I have met the Irish every place I’ve been. Welcome, I am glad you came.

She sits on a wooden chest against the wall. The woman stands on the other side of the bed, before a draped window; perhaps she is two women. In the swell of whitish light it is hard to tell.

Joseph Conrad is lighting a cigar. I look at my feet. Cracked shoes, yellow painted boards. Why have I come? I belong to another century, a later one. Now I am here there is nothing to say.

He lies back on the pillows smoking his cigar. The head, monumental, the expression, grave.

+ + +

Perhaps it was not Joseph Conrad but someone else? No, this man was neither blind nor a librarian. He was a retired sea captain.

There was something I was trying to recall. A newspaper article about a hulk in Tasmania, once under the command of Joseph Conrad. Money was being sought to restore it.

The Otago … I began. He shook his head. No questions, he said. The details of my life are gathered like shards of a great mirror in which destiny will be revealed. It is not so. Nothing is revealed.

The cigar fumes were making my friend uncomfortable. She said to the woman: Could I have a glass of water please? The women took a hand each. Come with us, they said.

I was alone with Joseph Conrad. He drew on his cigar. Blue smoke layered the air, drifting toward the white window. The translucent drapes belled.

Oceans of paper, he said. Voyaging on. I lived at a time when kings were dying. We saw the ends of the earth. Contracted to a sphere. It was necessary to invent infinity.

I had not thought him contemporary with Einstein, Apollinaire. C’est vrai. He wrote letters in French, books in English. In what language did he think?

The man with the piano, I said. On the dock at Circular Quay. An Englishman. You spoke together for an hour. You were a young officer on a darkened deck. You never saw his face. His name was Senior.

The great head inclined forward once, acknowledging – what? That he had heard? Remembered? We return to every place we ever were, he said. Oceans of paper, voyaging on. It is necessary to invoke eternity.

+ + +

The globe is small. It stands on three plastic legs, on the dresser before the dusty window. Outside, paint peels from a yellow wall. The sky is radiant, blue as ink.

This is where we wake up. Sometimes it is dark, there are small brown stars we cannot name. Bats screeching in the avocado tree. Cats squalling in the laneway.

Here blood threads our flesh with longing. Here is where we leave from on our inland journeys. We go together, or alone. It has happened that we set out for different places, only to find each other there.

Other times we go nowhere. Comatose. Sunk in our bodies as into dank earth. Choking on flints, mumbling over bones, thirsting. Then water rises and we overflow, running into each other like underground rivers, sourceless springs.

How do I know this is her beside me? How do I know it is me? There is no chest here, only the dresser, the mirror, the racks of clothes. The bed where we lie dreaming or awake, mingled or apart. The globe.

I ask that the two women come forward as witnesses. In the works of Joseph Conrad you will not find them written, nor any mention of my friend, myself. Only Mr. Senior is real.

Leaning on a crate in the half-dark at the semi-circular quay he smokes a cigar and converses with a man he cannot see. Wide-ranging, far-reaching, their words drift out towards the stars.

We turn and turn. Sometimes we are one, sometimes two, sometimes many. Each night is an ocean. Waking, we find a shore, ochre and blue. We set out, maps in the palms of our hands.


the invention of mirrors

One of the weirdest things about Çatalhöyük may be the uniformity of the structures. The houses in the town of perhaps 8000 people were all more or less identical. Like cells in a hive perhaps. Or apartments in a contemporary apartment building. (As a point of comparison, a fare I had the other week told me that there are 8000 people working in 'his' building on George Street in the City.) The spatial arrangements were the same for every house. Entrances were always on the southern side, beside the kitchen area. The same domestic activites took place in the same areas of different houses. It has been suggested that people were restricted as to where they could actually be in this highly organised space - as they were, and in some case still are, so restricted in houses in Fiji and other parts of central Polynesia. Whether this formalised space was as oppressive as some think is perhaps a moot point. In purely physical terms, it may have been - many of the skeletons dis-interred there have carbon deposits in the chest cavity, apparently because of long term inhalation of smoke from the ovens, where animal dung and/or wood fires burned. The picture of this very large number of people packed in their family units into functionally identical houses in a vast walled compound is very strange. What sort of psychic world did they inhabit? Are those images of wild nature in their murals and sculptures nostalgic, propitiatory, celebratory, what? There were no streets in Çatalhöyük and no public buildings, or public spaces, have yet been uncovered - which may not mean that there were no communal activities, only that they took place outside the town. There is little evidence of violent death among the population and the walls of the town were not defensive fortifications, they were simply the external walls of the outermost houses. A far-ranging trade in obsidian was centred in that part of Anatolia and it's possible that the people of Çatalhöyük participated in this trade, though it isn't clear what they might have got in exchange for the volcanic glass. They certainly used it to make mirrors, which were sometimes buried with the women who, presumably, owned them. Men were more likely to have obsidian daggers in their graves. What are the implications of the invention of mirrors? Each in our cell, dreaming of a cell, in which another also lives; another just as we are; while in the next cell ...


more bull?

I probably shouldn't have been so hard on Balter's book, which I've now finished. It's not his fault that, despite our best efforts, no-one can figure out exactly what was going on in Anatolia nearly ten thousand years ago. It's hard enough to work out what's happening today. And there are nuggets of gold in amongst the inadvertance ... eg the people of Çatalhöyük, while they mostly ate domesticated sheep and goats, and the grains and legumes they cultivated quite some distance from the town they built among the marshes of a drying lake, had a special feeling for wild creatures and wild plants. They seem to have feasted ritually upon wild cattle, they enshrined the seeds of wild grasses in specially made pockets in the backs of goddess figurines. Even more fascinating, they apparently chose the site of their town not because of its proximity to cultivable fields or wild hunting grounds but because the raw material for the plaster they used on their floors and walls was bountiful in the lake bed. They - all 8000 of them - were obsessed with plaster and the reason for that may have been their linked obsession with the murals they painted onto the plastered walls of their houses and the sculptures they set into the floors and walls. And their art ... ? Like that of the great cave painters many millenia before in Western Europe, their subject matter was predominantly wild nature, especially wild animals, not fields of grain or flocks of herd animals. They also were in the habit of burning their houses before building new ones on top of the charred remain of the former dwelling, below the plastered floor of which lay their familiar dead. And, we learn, those plastered floors were swept meticulously clean at the end where the painted murals and sculpted skulls were; while at the other end, the living floors, where the ovens were and the ladders leading out onto the roofs - the only way they could enter and leave the house - were allowed to accumulate much more detritus. But why towns at all? One of the possible answers to this question is to rephrase it as another question: why houses? The house itself, the domus, some think, is the key: people stayed put because of their houses, and the domestication of plants and animals was subsequent to the (self) domestication of humans. Then again, why? Ian Hodder says: "It seems to me that this shift occurs through ritual, communal ritual ... at ... Göbekli Tepe in southeast Turkey ... enormous carved pillars (have been found) back around 9300 BC ... but ... there is no domestic architecture there ... you see similar things at Jericho in the Levant and Çanyönü in southeast Turkey, with its skull cult. The focus is on ceremonial ritual centres." The houses cluster around cathedrals, as it were. But at Çatalhöyük, 2000 years later, the church was in the house, or was the house. In the same way perhaps as it is for many of us today.


reaching natural

Many years ago, nearly forty, I was driving along Hakanoa Street in Huntly, where we lived at the time, in the front passenger seat of my mother's red and white Hillman Imp. I think it was after school, certainly afternoon. In what was obviously a pre-planned move, she pulled the car over to the side of the road, turned to me and said: "What's it going to be, a doctor or a lawyer?" To say I was gobsmacked doesn't answer the case. "Actually," I stammered, "I'm going to be an archaeologist." Of course I didn't, just as I didn't become a doctor or a lawyer; but I did investigate the option before deciding against it. Too boring, I decided. Too much hard yakka over minutiae. Not everyone, in fact hardly anyone, finds a Troy or a Çatalhöyük; furthermore, since the advent of processual archaeology in the 1970s and the post-processual archaeology that succeeded it, interpretation of the minutiae uncovered by archaeologists has itself become controversial if not actually proscribed. I've retained my interest in the subject, have continued to read widely, I'm still grappling with my own, perhaps idiosyncratic, explanations of how our distant ancestors lived, which is to say, how we came to be the way we are ... but I have to say it can still be hard yakka when it comes to the literature. This reflection is prompted by a book I bought recently, sight unseen, but with some excitement: 'The Goddess and the Bull' by Michael Balter. It purports to be a biography of the aforementioned Çatalhöyük, which has been of interest to me ever since I read James Mellaart's 'Ancient Civilizations of the Near East' not so very long after that epochal conversation with my mother. Indeed, she bought the book for me. Mellaart was a maverick, an enthusiast, a controversialist. By the time he came to excavate Çatalhöyük at the beginning of the 1960s, he had already dug, as it were, his own grave as far as working in Turkey was concerned. His involvement in the mysterious Dorak Affair ultimately meant that Çatalhöyük would be closed to him forever, and off limits to anyone else for thirty odd years. But in the early 1990s the site was re-opened and, under the direction of Ian Hodder, excavations have continued there for more than ten years now. And yet, in an index of how things have changed, in those ten years Hodder's team of a hundred specialists has excavated only a tiny fraction, not just of the mound itself, but of what Mellaart uncovered in less than half the time with a tenth of the people. And, somehow, no conclusions can yet be drawn from the meticulous forensics of this hundred-strong A team. Balter's book is full of brief, laudatory, mildly interesting bios of people on the site, of inadvertent impressionistic detail of their rather privileged lives, of 'dramatic' confrontations on the mound ... and reads not unlike a school magazine end of year report. Fine if you were there, if not, not. His account of the Dorak Affair, one of the main reasons I bought the book, is perfunctory and unconvincing, with no new information and several mis-readings of the excellent book written in the 1960s by two Sunday Times journalists. I can tell already, about three quarters of the way through, that 'The Goddess and the Bull' will end with a series of non-answers to resounding questions - like why and how people began living in cities at all? It is another case of a contemporary phenomenon, familiar from many other fields of inquiry, that the more facts you know, the less understanding you have. Science is perhaps a romance for those involved in it, but for those of us who are not it can seem like a massive, expensive, ultimately nugatory indulgence. At one point Balter writes: " ... archaeology is a destructive process. Excavating a Neolithic building means taking it apart piece by piece and layer by layer, until all that is left is the data on the archaeologist's recording sheet and the artifacts recovered ... the only way to get to the bottom levels is to take off the top ones." When you do that, when you do get to the bottom, you have, as they say, 'reached natural'. Where prehistory turns into geology perhaps. I know there are no incontrovertible answers to the big questions; but that doesn't seem to me a reason not to attempt answers. On the other hand, one of the truly unnerving images in Balter's book is that of goddess worshippers making their way past the labouring forensic diggers to join hands and dance on the top of the mound, in fealty to an ancient deity who, say the archaeologists, probably never existed. As if we were all, only differently, deluded.



Must be because of a profile I read recently in the press of Australian actor Arthur Dignam and his son that I've been thinking about Mohamed. Although I've never met Arthur, he and I were near neighbours for a while - he lived above a corner shop on Glebe Point Road while I rented a small flat in nearby Avona Avenue. It was on that corner I met Mohamed, who started talking to me one day, probably because my eyes were red like his from marijuana smoking, which I did a lot of in those days. I think I was also driving cabs at the time. Anyway, we struck up an acquaintance and he used to come and visit me at my flat sometimes. He was living - or rather, staying - with Arthur. He used to cook and clean and provide other services. Mohamed was a small time drug dealer, a hustler, perhaps a gigolo too. He was Gambian and his story was a strange one. One day, just a teenager, he'd jumped a ship, a freighter, visiting his home country and become a sailor. He'd jumped off this ship, or another, in Sydney some time later and then found himself unable to leave again. He was in fact stateless, without a passport or any other forms of identity which could have got him one. He had family in The Gambia but they weren't able to help him establish his nationality; and the Australian authorities seemed unsympathetic although far more tolerant than they are now, when he would probably be in a detention centre. Mohamed was an engaging soul, generous, cheerful, inclined only towards brief spells of melancholy at his singular fate. I never became his customer, but we used sometimes to share what we had with each other - marijuana mostly, occasionally ecstasy, and sometimes he would offer me unknown substances which I would usually, out of caution, refuse. He also liked to blow off steam, complaining about the things Arthur wanted him to do; but I think Arthur was kind to him too, giving him food and shelter and a place to sleep in return for those services. I have a couple of indelible memories of Mohamed: there was a small bone carving of a man, a Paul Klee like figure, which a friend brought back from Africa, the Congo I think, hanging on a nail just inside the door of my flat. Mohamed was looking at it one day when I remarked casually that I thought it might be carved from human bone. Mohamed, who was about to touch it with one finger, flew backwards in the air across the room as if recoiling from contact with a major electric current. Another time when he came around, a newspaper was lying open on the floor at a full page advertisement for women's lingerie with provocative, if somewhat smudgy, models showing it off. 'Oh, man,' said Mohamed, heartfelt. 'We going to die!' The last time I saw Mohamed was one day on Oxford Street. I was in a car - a taxi perhaps? - and he, resplendent in a somewhat disheveled white suit, with a white hat and white shoes, was walking along the pavement with a louche, sexy woman on either arm. He looked brilliantly happy, like King Alpha with two Queen Omegas. I say this because for some reason Mohamed's story always makes me think of the great song by the Melodians, Rivers of Babylon, which Boney M had a hit with in the 1980s was it? Anyway, the lyrics are in fact adapted from the Book of Psalms, #137 and #19:

By the rivers of Babylon,
Where we sat down,
And there we wept
When we remembered Zion.

Oh, the wicked carried us away in captivity,
Required from us a song,
How can we sing King Alpha's song
In a strange land?

So, let the words of our mouth
And the meditations of our heart
Be acceptable in Thy sight.
O Far I ...

As for Mohamed, that far I, I wonder where, or if, he is now?


Yeah / No

A few years ago a friend pointed out to me "that New Zealanders say 'Yeah / No'". As is the way with such things, having become aware of this language habit, I now notice it all the time. It's not confined to New Zealanders - Australians do it too. What does it mean? It doesn't signal outright disagreement so much as a kind of reflexive acknowledgment of the other's position - remark, statement, supposition, whatever - followed by an assertion of one's own version. If the 'yeah' is an agreement, the 'no' is almost an apology. One person might say: "I thought you guys were going away this weekend?" and the other reply: "Yeah, no, we are." Is this a simultaneous registration of the other's doubt that the weekend was going to happen, followed by a denial that this doubt is valid? It seems to be. And yet ... there's often something fugitive in this surely bizarre conjunction of the positive and the negative. The shades of meaning conveyed can feel contradictory and, at the same time, ineffable. Perhaps 'yeah / no' speaks from a deep layer of the antipodean psyche, so deep that ultimate clarification is problematic, even, perhaps, impossible. Yeah, no, I know what you mean.


the ole dream factory

One of my earliest memories returned in a dream last night. This memory is olfactory before all else, though it has texture, place and context as well. It is the smell of my father's sports coat, a mingling of tweedy cloth, tobacco smoke and his own incommunicable personal scent. I have my face buried in the roughness of his shoulder or chest, he must have picked me up in his arms. It's round the back of the house we lived in in Burns Street, Ohakune on some lost afternoon in the 1950s. I don't know this but I think I must have been running out to greet him when he returned home from the secondary school where he taught. There's the car garage, the old flatbed of a truck next to it, the almond tree, the overgrown crumbly asphalt of the disused tennis court. The day is fine and I am happy beyond words. In the dream we were walking away from all this into a kind of whiteness which was both Burns Street running out into scrubby, derelict farms, and the future. Nothing happened. Just this wonderful sense of his nearness and the aching familiarity of that smell. Don't know why this should have surfaced now. It's fifteen years since he died. But it might have something to do with the book I was reading before I went to sleep: "Innocents in Africa" by Drury Pifer. It's a memoir about growing up in South Africa in the 1930s and 1940s and there are aspects of his tender and beautiful evocations of family life in the midst of hellish deserts and even more hellish mines in those deserts, which do recall my 1950s childhood in a remote rural town in New Zealand. The landscapes are of course entirely different but something about the way the Pifers constructed a rich and satisfying life out of almost nothing is reminscent of my own parents' halcyon days in 'Kune. As are the dark shadows of impending dissolution Pifer conjures from hindsight - he wrote the book as a sixty year old living in Delaware and this copy was published by Granta Books in the mid 1990s. It is a lovely read and if the book was what triggered this early memory - which I have been half aware of for a long time without ever quite clarifying - then I am grateful for that too. Even though there is an almost unbearable melancholy that comes along with it.