a magical tale?

Long before Australia was discovered by Europeans, it was imagined in the hearts and souls and minds of rulers, explorers and romantics on the other side of the world. Martin Edmond is a modern day romantic who embarked on a journey to discover the mystery around Luca Antara, now known as Australia. This is not a standard historical text, nor strictly a memoir. Edmond has written a magical tale about himself and his obsession with the past ....

Mary Philip in the Brisbane Courier Mail, 16.12.06


beautiful lie or elaborate joke?

This seems like an altogether more reasonable - and generous - account of what the book is, and is about. Apropos the SMH review, my publisher wrote yesterday and said: The best books generate a range of responses. Have no idea if this is true or not but it was sweet of her to say so. As to the question, it's perhaps a case of both/and not either/or.



My agent told me on the phone this morning that there's another Luca review in the Australian Book Review. It's not available online & so haven't read it yet. But Fran said it describes the writing as 'impeccable'. This goes someway towards mollifying my outrage at the SMH's 'pedestrian' slur, even though I've always been a walker & believe, in fact, that prose writing at its best does have a peripatetic dimension. Or should that be ambulatory? Anyway ... I've been extremely well treated by NZ reviewers in recent years so perhaps the violence of my reaction to a bad review is partly due to a false sense of entitlement? Don't know. Interesting that the ABR also reviewed Luca as a work of fiction. Which, I repeat, though some of it is 'made up', in totality, it isn't. If that makes any sense.

PS Actually the word she uses is flawless as in flawlessly written. And closes with the adjectives beautiful and overwhelming although this second is not meant in an absolutely complimentary way but rather to suggest that there's just too much in the book. That's okay - I can live with that.


Stopped buying & reading the Sydney Morning Herald on a regular basis about a month ago because I was sick of their increasingly shallow & sensational approach to news & current affairs. Switched to The Australian which, while deeply conservative in many respects, does give a wider & less parochial consideration both to what is happening & what it might mean. So I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at the miserable review of Luca Antara the SMH published this weekend. Must be a piece of attempted cleverness on someone's part to have it reviewed as a work of fiction, which it isn't, & this smart-arsedness is echoed in the review itself, which says, on the one hand, that the book exorcises the spectre of fiction and on the other that Luca Antara is yet to be written - huh? I think what the guy is saying is that I wrote a book like this because I wasn't able to write a novel. Echoing, it's true, something I - or 'the narrator' - also says at one point. The earnest often fail to recognise irony & thereby take seriously what is meant in jest, in the same way that the mean-spirited sometimes resent generosity in others. Everyone who writes knows that there is a shadow side to their work, a possible view or assessment of it that condemns it as negligible or nugatory; just as there is an alternative view that overstates its claims or reckons all that is attempted, achieved. Guess you hope reviewers see both possibilities & negotiate some kind of accord between them. What you don't ever want to read is a response that seems to arise out of anger or dismay at your temerity in writing the book at all. Unfortunately, that's what seems to have happened here. It's galling, particularly since the review focuses on formal matters, which aren't of particular interest to me, at the expense of content, which is, but what can you do? Something about the fiction of non-fiction was perhaps always going to end up in the Herald's too hard basket.


cherchez la femme

One of my neighbours the other day told me she saw a woman on a train reading Luca Antara - & she was a long way into it. A local Summer Hiller perhaps? Someone who was at the launch? Or - tantalising thought - a complete stranger? Guess I'll never know ...


a capital review

For reading, as this book demonstrates, is a journey of myriad possibilities ... in its profuse network of associations - some fleeting, some enduring - Luca Antara maps not merely the maze ... that reading can become, but the formation of our deeper selves. For as the hero of the Portuguese expedition to Luca Antara, Antonio da Nova, comes to realise, every journey is, inevitably, a search for our own souls. Edmond may not have the mastery of Sebald with this hybrid form, but this is nevertheless a book rich in ideas, at once erudite and eclectic, and full of beautifully unexpected and evocative descriptions ...

Fact or fiction, a remarkable journey; Diane Stubbings, The Canberra Times, 11.11.06

PS Was reading yesterday Randolph Stow, in the preface to To The Islands, complaining that some people thought his book was influenced by Patrick White's Voss, when it had in fact been written before Voss was even published. I feel a bit the same way about the (inevitable) W. G. Sebald comparison. It's an affinity, not an influence - I discovered my 'style', such as it is, before I'd read a word of Sebald.


from: A TRUE TALE OF LOVE IN TONGA (told in 23 engravings on wood and 333 words) by Robert Gibbings, London, Faber & Faber, MCMXXXV

ex libris Trevor Charles Edmond


Caught the train at about 4.30 from Summer Hill Station. There was a guy on the platform wearing a top hat & tails, a purple shirt & a gold bow tie. He was going up The Rocks to do some spruiking. Another bloke complimented him on his get-up & then started ear-bashing a pregnant Englishwoman, with child asleep in pram. It was about the tragedy of growing up in this world. She humoured him for a while and then lost it: I'm not going to go home & kill myself because some stranger on a train tells me his troubles! she snapped. He barely missed a beat but later, walking down the platform at Central, admitted to me that She got me there. I was early, I dawdled down Broadway, past where Antiquarian Books used to be, thinking I might stop in at the Broadway Hotel for a glass canoe ... but it's now a boutique cafe serving only bottled, boutique beer, so I turned off into Shepherd Street and walked up past where Pergamon Press used to be to the pub on the corner & had a beer there instead, among the scruffy, pre-rock 'n' roll crowd, with the dusty sunlight slanting down through the windows & the traffic roaring outside. Although I've been in there often before - once even to hear The Drifters play - I couldn't remember the name of the pub until I was leaving it. The Lansdowne. The great cloudy glass balls on the Grace Bros. Buildings are held in place by griffins, I realised, for the first time, & regretted not including that detail in the book. Ah, well. Past the shop where I bought this computer, noticing a screen / monitor almost twice the size of my one & wishing I could buy it. I'm dreamy & vague now because of the beer so I nearly don't recognize Jane Macduff sitting with Lesley McFadyean at a small table outside Badde Manors. I go with Jane to look at the venue & also to drop off the 2 cds I've brought along, Mariza's Transparente & Tinariwen's Radio Tisdas Sessions. Fado before & Tuareg desert music after seems like a good idea. Then we go back to join Lesley for a coffee before returning to Gleebooks where we stand around outside as the first few people start to arrive. By half past six the room upstairs is filling up nicely, the fado sounds great, the Turkish pizzas & the wine & the beer are going down but I don't want to start because my kids haven't arrived yet ... just then they show up at the top of the stairs, Liamh without one of his front teeth, which fell out this morning. I ask Jesse if he wants me to say anything about The Evil Chicken, his book, but he says no. They dim the lights, turn the music off, close the bar. Jane gets up & introduces Roger, with praises. We're sitting either side of the podium on the stage. I haven't seen Roger for a few years, he looks both more handsome and more gaunt than he used to. His launch speech is nicely meandering, he wanders happily here and there through the book, which he extols in almost embarrassingly fulsome terms. I see Jesse signing to me from the very front row, he means that I can say something about The Evil Chicken after all. I've tuned out momentarily during our dumb show & when I tune back in, Roger is talking about something he found on the Net, how he didn't realise I'd been living in a town in Queensland where he has relatives & visits often, which is a pity, because we could have caught up ... what on earth is he saying, I wonder, I've never lived in Queensland, I've only been there twice, once to the airport on the way back from Fiji - we didn't even get off the plane - and the other time to a National Park, a bat cave just over the NSW border? Then comes the punchline, he's been reading the Q & A I did with Mark Young as if I were Mark ... not realising I was the one asking the questions. This is quite funny although also a bit disconcerting. Then it's my turn, I say a few things & then read the bit about seeing the convict ghosts in the street outside the old Darlinghurst jail that time. My last remark is about Katherine spilling wine over her copy ... & as soon as I sit down at the signing table, that's what I do, spill my wine, all over the table. Fortunately there are no books on it at that point, but the cloth is soaked & they whip it away, leaving behind a surface that reminds me of an old school desk from the 1950s. The kids all crowd around while I'm signing, Liamh jigging my elbow & grinning like a pirate with his gat tooth, Jesse taking e-orders for The Evil Chicken, which I've described as both shorter & funnier than my book. That it is. His mate Monty is there too. It gets a bit blurred then, people saying goodbye & leaving with their books, some crashing bore who was at my last launch telling me Luca Antara is really Antarctica & then we're all being shooed out. Last person I see is my ex who calls across the street & comes running over, to say what I can't remember, but she hadn't bought a book & it was a great pleasure to give her one from my stash, though whether it will be a pleasure for her to read is another question, since she's in it, albeit under another name. Fran, Jane, Morgan & I go up to the Toxteth where I remember I sent, in all innocence, Anthony off to the Friend in Hand, since that's where I thought we were going then. I call them up, hear his name being shouted through the bar, but no answer. We drink 2 bottles of Oomoo & eat meaty dishes with many toasts & lots of laughs. Later still, the cabbie who takes me home is a negro Buddhist from Sri Lanka who says, when he's not working, he plays with his five year old son. I love my son, he says. And, of his religion, that acts have consequences. You do something bad, it will come back on you. Even so, we can't be good all the time. After I pay him, we shake hands, which is nice. Then I come back up here feeling ... beached or launched, I can't decide which. Perhaps I'm beached while the book is launched? If so, it must be time to do some more beachcombing ... happy days.


Luca X London

Heard this morning from my sister, who's been honeymooning in Europe, that she acquired a copy of Luca Antara in London last week ... ! Felt obscurely envious of the alleged author of such a far-travelled work. She, Katherine, has a friend, Belinda, who runs the NZ Bookshop in Lundinium, & Belinda had ordered in a few copies. This one, over what ocean I do not know, was accidently annointed with a few drops of (red?) wine on the trip back. Surely a good sign ...

Especially since the looming launch is causing me slight anxiety, if only because the invite did not include an RSVP address, so the Events Manager at Gleebooks (thank you, Morgan) does not know how many to cater for. She wanted me to re-call all those on my launch list to suggest that, if they're coming, they confirm, but I just can't do that. Figure that, you send out the invites & people come or not as they see fit. Turkish pide / pizza for 40 should do it, surely? And enough wine to spill over a few more copies.


Fernando Pessoa speaks ...

I’m nothing .
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t even wish to be something.
Aside from that, I’ve got all the world’s dreams inside me.

in the person of Alvaro de Campos, The Tobacco Shop, opening lines



The first town we passed through was called Alas. It was the night of 1 November in that part of the world, the night before the US election. Everyone was awake; all the lights were on—greeny-blue low-wattage bulbs which give hardly any illumination. Every house had a TV set on too, brighter than the lights in the room, showing soap operas, dreamy laid-back music videos, advertisements for things the people watching would never be able to buy, interspersed with Muslim hymns, sermons, prayers and rants.

The people were awake because it was Ramadan and they had spent the day fasting, and were now spending the night eating and talking. All the young men with nowhere to go and nothing to do sat outside watching the traffic, playing guitars or chess, talking and not talking, waiting. For what? Alas, like every other town we passed through on that strange hot night under the gibbous yellow moon, was a town of hovels with, every now and then, a resplendent mosque in which the light was bright white, a tiled, clean, well-lighted place where white-robed men and women sat and talked or sang or prayed. The hovels explained the mosques or the mosques explained the hovels, I couldn't decide which, but in Indonesia it is the case 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 guitars, waiting. Small children dressed in rags ran after the bus as we passed down the dusty single main street, yelling out in shrill high voices, 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 swollen yellow moon rose higher in the brown sky.

from: Luca Antara



The first three advance copies of Luca Antara, the book, arrived on Monday, 23rd October, coincidentally the birthday of my younger son & my maternal grandmother. Looks good. Course, I can't actually read it anymore, having been through it so many times before, looking for errors. I pick it up, open it at random, read a few paras, put it down again. It's funny when you see a book for the first time. Apart from the glaring imperfections in the writing - which perhaps others won't see - there's also the anxious scanning for New Things. Except there are no New Things, just what you put in it ... but the production is fine & it is a nice object. I like the paper it's on. Booksellers & Publishers reviewed it & gave it 4 stars, but haven't seen the review yet & don't know if it's 4/5 or 4/10 or 4/100 ...


omai la navicella

(scroll down to Nov. 17)


will be posting my occasional pieces over here from now on & reserving this site for those things that concern the eponymous book. dérives (sigh) will remain dérives.


(click on images to read fine print ... )


the uncertainty principle

Came back from New Zealand a few weeks ago with two novels. My sister lent me her copy of Carry Me Down by Irish/Australian M J Hyland and my friend Pete, New Zealander Craig Marriner's Southern Style. Two novels by (notional) antipodeans, one set in rural Ireland, the other in London. Both second books by relatively young writers. That's just about all they have in common. I started reading them in tandem, something I hardly ever do with fiction books. I'd read a bit of one, then a bit of the other. But then Southern Style, which is a kind of thriller, took over and I raced through to the end before returning to Carry Me Down.

It's told entirely from the point of view of an eccentric eleven year old boy, an only child, and as such is a remarkable achievement. The tone never falters, you never once doubt the veracity of John Egan's voice, you share his confusions, his agonies, his increasing alienation, as he attempts to understand what is happening to him and to his parents, to find a place in the world. It's also one of the grimmest books I've read, and affected me so strongly that at times I had to put it aside for a while. And yet ...

Southern Style is about a group of twenty-something antips in contemporary London. They mostly work in a warehouse where electronic games and the machines that play them are disbursed to the masses. When they aren't partying, that is. The plot, which is intricate and for the most part deftly handled, deals with an attempt by some crims to organise a heist from the warehouse, though you don't really find this out until about two thirds of the way through. The point of view shifts from character to character, with an authorial voice drifting in to tell connecting parts of the story. It's as virtuostic in its way as Hyland's performance. And yet ...

Endings are hard things to pull off. Both books essay an upbeat end and neither is really convincing. You feel the intervention of some other intelligence, which is of course the intelligence that has crafted the book in the first place, but that moment when it becomes, as it were, visible, and visibly manipulative, is disconcerting. Suddenly the schematics start to show, as if bones protruded through flesh. Suddenly what should be reassuring, even comforting - the happy ending - starts to look contrived. You feel as you often do after a movie has ended, as if the sensibility of film has somehow infiltrated the world of books.

I'm reminded of something W G Sebald, who never hid his distaste for the traditional novel, said of his own writing: It's the opposite of suspending disbelief and being swept along by the action, which is perhaps not the highest form of mental activity; it's to constantly ask, 'What happened to these people, what might they have felt like?' You can generate a similar state of mind in the reader by making them uncertain.


southerly change

Why did you leave without saying goodbye? A redundant question - it has happened before. Before what? This latest occasion. The skies are grey, the moon is full, unseen behind those cloudy clouds. The palms bend in the wind that blew down the street some eight hours ago, and blows still. Still blows. Tremendously. Why did you leave without? We went swimming anyway, the pool was full of leaves, there was someone sunbathing in a pink bikini who reminded me so strongly of you I felt momentarily insane. Her husband, solicitously, covered her with a towel, later their son got out and then couldn't undo the knot on the plastic bag full of fruit drinks. We, my sons and I, came back here and sat on the couch while I read half a chapter of Treasure Island out loud. They don't really get the antiquated language, though every word speaks. Yet they're interested too, how could they not be? Treasure? Island? I want that map, it's not about money, doubloons or pieces of eight, nickels and dimes, those shiny bits you throw me now and again. It's a map of the future I want, I can dig, where to dig? I can search, where to search? I can ... endure. What for? A girl pauses out front and picks from the garden a hot pink geranium to add to her bouquet. I can see the sudden explosion in her eyes of the colour of the flower she has to bend and pluck. Can feel her happiness in the change in her walk as she goes on to her assignation. Why did you? I want not to wait and will wait. I want to go and will stay. I want not to want. Why?

Sidney Nolan: Rimbaud at Harar


3 Basque proverbs & 2 words

Gaua, gogapenen ama: Night is the mother of thought.

Jentalik are/were a race of giants in Basque legend. The word comes from the same Latin root as Gentile, foreigner, with the Basque plural attached, but some think it also attests to a folk memory of the ancient people we now call Neanderthals. In this version, the Basques are descended directly from Cro-Magnon humans who co-existed with Neanderthals on the Iberian Peninsula - and perhaps elsewhere as well - for many thousands of years.

Izena duen guztiak izatea ere badauje: Everything with a name exists.

Our word Centaur may be of Basque origin. Zalzaval = horse-man. Basques say they are descended from Zalvazal. One of the oldest Basque festivals, the Rigodon dance (from erri-goi-doi, meaning City of Heaven), features a man in a horse costume (the Zamalzain, the horse-man) dancing around a cup, variously referred to as the Grail or the entrance to the spirit world. Today, this is a glass of wine.

Nola soinu, hala dautza: Each kind of music calls forth its own kind of dance.


E Pluribus Unum

Walking back down Parnell Street in Strathfield to my car the other evening, I saw a coin glinting on the pavement and picked it up. Not so very far along the same street, I picked up another. The light wasn't good enough for me to see what they were, and even when I came home I had to look at them through a magnifying glass. The first is a small golden 1977 Hong Kong twenty cent piece, with crenallated edges and Queen Bess II on the back. Lot of Chinese live in Strathfield so I guess that explains that. The other turned out to be a 1907 US nickel, with a big Roman V, flanked by wreaths, on one side and Liberty, her face almost effaced, on the reverse. How on earth did that get there, I wonder?


turns out we're all Basques after all

Was fascinated by Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer's Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of South East Asia, which fed naturally into one of the themes of Luca Antara. His next book, Out of Eden - about the human progress from Africa into the rest of the world - is equally intriguing. Now he's written a third, this time a genetic study of the populations of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, sometimes known as the British Isles. I haven't read it yet, but there's a summary of its thesis, by Oppenheimer himself, here. Another link is to the Bradshaw Foundation, which has a world map, called the Journey of Mankind upon which you can view the probable course of that trek out of Africa. Now I'm remembering the way my father looked on his death bed, revealing a profile that seemed undeniably Spanish to me at the time ... but perhaps I should have been thinking - Basque.


day off blues

Adrenaline hangover. Have to make a call but feel disinclined to do so - yet. I decide to drive over to Newtown for cigarettes. The outlets that sell Gadung Garam in the strength I like have narrowed down to three that I know of, two in the City, and this one. Philip's looking for his cat so I tell him she's round at the door of my building. Bitch, he says when I say I spoke to her but she turned her back on me. He goes off rubbing his neuralgic face. In Salisbury Road, some guys (have to be guys .... ) in a hotted up black car are throwing something out the window. As I come up to the corner of Australia Street, I see a brown ovoid arc from the passenger side over the roof towards three girls walking down the footpath. There's a splat!, barely heard. Eggs, then. One of the girls has suffered a direct hit, there's goo all over her face, her bare shoulder, down her arm. O my God ... ! she shouts, seeming more excited than upset. I want to take the number of the black car but it's way down the street now and I'm not going that way, I'm turning. Outside the Courthouse Hotel, a skinny guy in denims and hat is walking his ferret on a lead. The ferret, all ginger and black, hunches its back as it hops along beside him. A woman parked in a no stopping zone opposite the police station runs to her car and climbs in the driver's seat, hardly waiting for her young son to get in the other side. She gives me a getaway grin as she pulls out. I cross two sets of lights, buy my smokes, stroll down King Street a ways, pulling the cellophane from the pack. Two drunks outside the railway station sardonically kitchy-koo a baby in a stroller. The mother ignores them. I cross two more sets of lights. 3000 men from Newtown fought in the Great War says a plaque set in the pavement where I stop to light my cigarette. The hoped-for headspin doesn't come. I must be more addicted than I think. It's hot and I feel lazy and stupid as I wander back to the car. When I come home again, I make the call. Tonight we'll be watching horror movies at six because my friend says she'll be scared afterwards if we do it later. I put Modern Times on the stereo and come through here to write this. The way Bob sings In this earthly domain / Full of disappointment and pain / You'll never see me frown ... almost makes me cry. Yesterday it did but today the memory of those tears makes it impossible to shed them again. Lunchtime already. I have no idea what I want ... unless it's hard boiled eggs.


Wurke and Bills

Have always loved those large format, illustrated histories in which the sparse text is interleaved with images drawn from a wide variety of contemporary sources. The other day I picked up one from the early 1970's, by Max Colwell, called The Journey of Burke and Wills. Among its visual attractions is a number of luminous watercolours by Ludwig Becker, the German polymath who accompanied, and died upon, the doomed expedition. Plus much else besides. The actual account of the trek is fairly abbreviated but includes all the essential detail of that extraordinarily poignant disaster. The only thing I wish was also included is Sidney Nolan's wonderful painting of their departure from Melbourne, which I can't find an image of on the Web either. But this one's pretty good:


hoo dat?

It was the sound of the streets. It still is. I symbolically hear that sound wherever I am.
You hear the sound of the street?
That ethereal twilight light, you know. It’s the sound of the street with the sunrays, the sun shining down at a particular time, on a particular type of building. A particular type of people walking on a particular type of street. It’s an outdoor sound that drifts even into open windows that you can hear. The sound of bells and distant railroad trains and arguments in apartment buildings and the clinking of silverware and knives and forks and beating with leather straps. It’s all—it’s all there. Just lack of a jackhammer, you know.
You mean if a jackhammer were—
Yeah, no jackhammer sounds, no airplane sounds. All pretty natural sounds. It’s water, you know water trickling down a brook. It’s light flowing through the . . .
Late-afternoon light?
No, it’s usually the crack of dawn. Music filters out to me in the crack of dawn.
The “jingle jangle morning”?
Luca Antara, the book, goes to print today. And I go back to work ...


at the wedding : a before & after

From left: Catherine, sister of the groom, Francois, the groom, Katherine, the bride, Martin, brother of the bride, Frances, sister of the bride


Off to NZ tomorrow for about ten days. My sister's wedding, in Havelock North, next Saturday, is the reason for the trip but I'll see a few other people and do a few other things while I'm there. Fly to Wellington, drive to Hawkes Bay, fly to Auckland, fly back here ... will be good to have a change of scene, change of head space, change, change, change, like the ringing of a cash register with empty drawers but good acoustical presence. Was there something else? No, I don't think so. Unless it's this.


Modern Times

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


The Six of Spades

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


the good oil

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


my father's shaving brush

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


if you wanna be a bird ...

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

books on the new shelf

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

When imagination fails, we make lists - Anon

(There's another one over at dérives)


In Crocodilopolis

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


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


Aphrodisiac Junction

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


today is the horse's birthday

Q: What's Australian for William Shakespeare?

A: Willy Waggadagger.

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

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


As if I didn't have enough to distract me, a few weeks ago I went and started another blog. Perhaps because I can foresee a time when I'll either retire Luca Antara or use it only to post material directly related to the book of the same name, which will be out in a couple of month's - three, actually - time. The link's over there on the right, but I might was well put it here as well: White City. There's not much there yet and what there is seems fugitive, a bit mysterious, ontologically imprecise but trying to focus that imprecision, that ontology. We shall see; or we shan't.


Hmmmm ... or, hummmm ... just sent my essays off to the publisher, always a good feeling to get another obsession off the desktop. Strange how fixated you can become on something like this. As if, somehow, every one of the 80,000 or whatever word-number it is has to be logged in order in the mind, their configuration understood, their cross-references, their repetitions. The fact that this is more or less impossible does not seem to be a disincentive to trying to make it so. Is it artefact or artifact? World War Two or the Second World War? Delusion or illusion? Here's how I described my preoccupations in the afterword: ... surrealism and expressionism; psychedelics and the nature of perception; landscape, with its intimations of paradise lost or found; the City; the far reaches of spacetime and the means used to probe it; above all, the workings of memory and what it can tell us of time, mind and world. Is that all, I'm thinking now? Is that everything? Am I missing something? What about love?


getting & spending

I have been remiss; I have not contributed to, or even visited, the blogosphere for weeks. My excuse, if an excuse is needed, is that I have in effect been working at two jobs. Beginning to drive again set off a welter of activity as I attempted to devise strategies that would perhaps bring the money I need to live without driving. These proposals are done and gone now, although who knows if they will be successful or not? Yet I have found, I think, both a book and a film I would like to write ... given the time. And also, unexpectedly, I decided to try gathering up bits and pieces of prose written here and there over the last thirty years or so to see if I could make a book out of them. This too is done, or almost, though it's not yet gone. Like drawing a line under the present, so that the past is truly past. If such a thing can be. Now I feel like I'm beached on some further shore, which is neither present nor past. Nor quite the future either. Some limboland, some littoral that, when I have the strength, I'll get up and start to explore.


It came to me in a dream

... must be one of the weariest tropes in our culture. I have never quite believed it myself, until Sunday night that is. Or should I say Monday morning? A friend had reminded me, serendipitously, of the due date for a certain grant application to be in. I was about to go back driving, imminently (I started that Blue Monday) and was feeling a sort of mild desperation about my prospects: what an earth could I contrive that might save me from the phantasmagoria? I had no new book to write, nothing I could legitimately ask for money to do.

During the night, while I slept, a name came to me. It loomed in my dreaming consciousness, crossing from vision to vision with enigmatic insistence. No particular narrative was associated with this name, nor did I see the person it belongs to. What there was, came down to this: Mr Oort, Master of Illusion.

Well, I love to dream and I particularly like dreaming enigmas. They are gifts that can entertain my usually scattered and fractious thoughts for a long time. When I woke, with this title and phrase intact in my mind, I began to wonder who he was and what it meant? Within a very short time, perhaps an hour or two, answers began to flow through my synapses - a first name, Jakob, a history, a mystery, a calling, a disappearance, a quest. It was an extraordinary feeling, to see, as it were without agency, this plot, or plat, constitute itself before me. The projection seemed not to require anything of me except that I witness it.

And the writing down, of course. The application I'm going to make insists that you produce a sample of the proposed work, an idiotic requirement I feel - as if with a brick you could show the house you are to build - but there we are. With equal parts anxiety and wonder, I started tapping out the first ten pages of my tale. There they are, floating like a tracery of dark threads on the blue pool of my screen. They may not earn me the grant, but I no longer care about that. There will be a way.


Very Sturdy Rogues

... so Louise Varèse translates the first sentence of Rimbaud's Parade - Des drôles très solides. Been thinking about this word, sturdy, because there was a category of miscreants in Elizabethan England who went by the name of sturdie beggars, viz:

... all Fencers, Bearwards, Common Players in Enterludes & Minstrels not belonging to any Baron of this Realm ... all Jugglers, Pedlars, Tinkers and Petty Chapmen, and have not Licence ... shall be taken and adjudged to be deemed Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdie Beggars ...

This is an excerpt from a statute that was used to prevent travelling players travelling and playing ... but why were those beggars sturdy? Turns out that behind a modern, if rare usage - vigorous and determined - is an older meaning - reckless and violent - from the French verb, estourdir, to stun or daze; and behind that is a Latin word ex + turdus, thrush, used to describe a kind of drunkenness, that is, presumably, drunk as a thrush.

But what I always think about is a pop star hero of my youth, the lead singer in a band called Larry's Rebels, whom I once saw live at a dance in a country hall out the back of Morrinsville when I was about 16. Well, Larry went down a few years later for selling LSD to a policeman and part of the demystification process, I guess, was the revelation that his real name was Larry Sturdee. Not a Rebel after all but a Very Sturdy Rogue, perhaps.


This week the first proofs - as they used to be known - of Luca Antara arrived. In the interim it has grown a subtitle - Passages in search of Australia - about which I was initially dubious. However, anyone I've spoken to who is involved with selling books, thinks it's a good idea so I'm feeling better about it now. Meanwhile the book itself is shaping up really nicely. A very strong, graphic cover, lots of ornamental flourishes in the titles and half-titles inside, reminscent of the writing on old maps, a nice clear face for the body of the text, and an image to introduce each of the four sections. Don't have permission for all of these yet so I won't say what they are. Except for this one, which is about 200 years old and thus out of copyright:


... as a glow brings out a haze ...

A couple of weeks ago I picked up, second hand, a copy of Dr Johnson & Mr Savage, by Richard Holmes. The book is a meticulous and fascinating account of the friendship between the young Samuel Johnson and the aging Richard Savage, during the year 1738. At this point Johnson, just arrived in London, was virtually unknown while Savage was, if anything, too well known. He was, says the back cover blurb ... a poet, playwright and convicted murderer who roamed the brothels and society salons of Augustan England creating a legend of poetic injustice ... Savage, an extravagant and fantastical man, with elaborate manners and radically unpredictable sympathies, died in prison in Bristol in 1744, more or less reconciled to his fate. Johnson then wrote his life and the drift of Holmes' thesis is that in that act of composition Johnson also invented the form of literary biography as it is practised today. It's a convincing enough argument but the chief joy of the book for me was its evocation of Savage himself as a talented but always disenchanted literary malcontent of a type I have occasionally known myself, both here in Sydney and in my youth in New Zealand. Then there is its picture of the milieu, Grub Street, with its manifold follies and complexities. When Alexander Pope, who generously supported Savage in his decline, so long as he stayed away from London, was writing The Dunciad, a great deal of the obscure and malign gossip it contains was given him directly by Savage, who seems to have had a quite extraordinarily compendious memory, especially for the faults and failings of his fellows. Savage's murder was committed in a tavern or brothel, late one night, when he and two others, after hours of roistering around town, burst impatiently into a private room which was just about to be vacated by those who had been drinking there. An argument ensued, swords were drawn and Savage stabbed a man in the belly ...

This tavern or brothel fight, with its strange concatenation of the pen and the sword, put me in mind of the death of Christopher Marlowe, and the book, recently republished, that Charles Nicholl wrote about it, called The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. I'd seen a copy of it in Abbey's bookshop a few months ago, it was still there, so I bought and read it next. Not, unfortunately, as good as the Holmes. Like so many books these days, it needed a good edit. And there is too much in it of supposition that, through repetition and subtle changes of phrasing, masquerades as fact. And yet ... it does reveal a world as strange and as fascinating in its own way as does the Holmes, in this case the Elizabethan underworld of spies, utterers, projectors and the like. I suppose where this fascination is most acute for me is the area of 'projection', the laying of 'plats', whereby what is essentially a fiction, or an invention, is advanced into the world as a possibility that might then be made true by subsequent events. Marlowe's death, in so far as it can be understood, seems to have been a result of one of these projections, perhaps an attempt to bring down Walter Raleigh: he and the three men who killed him had spent the best part of a day together - from ten a.m. until after six in the evening - mostly in conversation, about what we do not know. Perhaps Marlowe was required to act in some way that he refused to do and was killed as a result; perhaps his death had been mooted before the meeting but was not decided upon until the discussions had reached a point of futility. Nicholl doesn't say this but it seemed clear to me that two men - Skeres and Pooley - held him, either side, by the arms, while Ingram Frizier drove the twelvepenny dagger in above his right eye, probably severing the carotid artery. This was thought to be a desirable blow in the arcana of Elizabethan sword fighting but always difficult to bring off; Marlowe would probably have to be held for it to have been accomplished. As to the further gruesome details - that his brains came out after the knife was withdrawn, that he died cursing - these seem to have been made up, or just possibily circulated by word of mouth, after he was buried, next day, in an unmarked grave in a Deptford churchyard.

But his name, as they say, lives on ... whatever name that was. Contemporary spelling was so fluid that it appears as Marly, Morly, Marley, Marlin, Merlin, Morlow and other versions as well as the one that has come down to us. But that name has gained extra associations, with Joseph Conrad's decision to give it - the surname alone, without the terminal 'e' - to the narrator of his Heart of Darkness as well as several other tales; while Raymond Chandler's reprise in his hero, Philip Marlowe, took it into another realm altogether. I even hear it faintly chiming inside the reggae beats of Bob Marley, as the name of a plantation owner from the 16th or 17th century, growing sugar or tobacco and running slaves under the hot Caribbean sun ... it was Conrad's Marlow who thought, appositely, that the meaning of an episode was outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze ...


Sent my book, White City, to my agent today. It's the solstice, & all that, & seemed like a good time ... couldn't do any more with it save wreck, perhaps, its fragile coherence. Last time I read it through, over last Sunday and Monday, it seemed more like a set of themes & variations than a story as such. I mean, it has a narrative, events unfold sequentially through time, but the writing has a tendency to riff around certain perennial preoccupations - mine & others - rather than gallop to an end. I guess that's okay. Guess it's fine. It just ... surprised me.


Parchment Farm

... ah, yes, Joe Strummer. Wrote a song for Johnny Cash & sent it to him, sometime in the 1980s or the 1990s, I don't know exactly when. Johnny didn't record The Road to Rock 'n' Roll, but when the two finally met, not so very long before their several deaths, he told Joe that the song had always bothered him & that throughout the intervening period he'd been trying to figure out what it meant. Meanwhile Joe did record it, with his band the Mescaleros, on their 1999 album Rock Art & the X Ray Style. It's got some lines that intrigued me too:

On the road to rock 'n' roll
Everybody carries a good luck charm
Said to spook the highway wind
Blowing off old Parchman Farm

... Parchman Farm, often written Parchment Farm (& why not), is another name for the Mississippi State Penitentiary, located near Parchman, Mississippi, where a number of famous old bluesmen were jailed and which turns up in some classic songs, including Bukka White's Parchman Farm Blues ... is this what spooked Johnny?

Wish I knew how to link to music here but, instead, the full text of the lyrics is here.

Now I'm gonna take the mirror in my soul & turn it to the sky ...


Auerbach's Rimbaud, 1976

Atlantis ... & beyond

Usually when I add a link to the sidebar, I do so silently ... but today I want to point to The Imaginary Museum, not just because Jack's a friend but also because his blog is brand new and so won't be much known about yet.


But memory images are being thrown up all the time ...

So wrote my sister towards the end of the last of her diaries which, more than ten years ago now, I transcribed, all three volumes. She wrote a full, though not continuous, account of her life from the time just before she left home at the beginning of 1972 until three years later, in 1975, breaking off about four months before her death in June of that year. I had some vague and as it turned out misplaced ideas about trying to publish an edited version of these diaries, vetoed by the rest of the family, but I'm still glad I did the transcription, which had the unanticipated effect of incorporating some of her perceptions, insights, usually in the actual phrases or sentences, into my functional memory so that she is, in fragmentary and unpredictable ways, always with me.

Anyway, here's another memory image thrown up: I'm eleven or twelve, and I'm doing my paper run, cycling up the unsealed, dusty and gravelly surface of Mole Street, along which there was just one house and thus one delivery, about halfway down, a letter box at the start of a long drive up to a wooden house on a slight hill. The rest of the street was paddocks and orchards, so far as I remember - with a particularly splendid apple orchard at one end, the one I was biking towards, on the corner of Wood Street. The woman who lives in the house is waiting by the gate for the paper, as many of the perhaps lonely old people on my run used to do. At this point, the sequence of events is a trifle vague, but either just before or just after I give her that day's Wairarapa Times Age, the hotted up Austen 7 belonging to a local hood by the name of Frog Hayes drives along Mole Street at speed, spewing vast quantities of fine white powdery dust in its wake. It swirls chokingly into my eyes and nose and mouth. I stick my tongue out at him.

Again my recollection is vague, but I know that either before or after this tongue-poking-out folly, Frog Hayes has words with the woman whose paper I've just delivered. Then he comes after me. I'm leaning from my partly upright bike, poking folded newspapers into the slots of the four or five mailboxes clustered at the corner of Wood and Mole when he drives up, not bothering to get out of his car, just pulling up next to me and snarling through the wound-down window. Somehow, through that vast dust cloud, he's seen my poked-out tongue in the rearview mirror and come to tell me that he's got his eye on me, he knows who I am, and if I tell anyone anything about the events of the afternoon he'll throw me into one of the blackberry bushes that grow in the vacant paddocks opposite the orchard. Then he drives off in another cloud of dust.

I was so scared. Only a few days previously, I'd witnessed Frog Hayes - he was probably only about 17, a skinny, mean little guy with a wizened face that had somehow led to him being given the name Frog - in an altercation with another local hoon outside Gilbert's Dairy on Main Street. The other guy had offered his hand for Frog to shake, to settle whatever their problem was, but Frog, characteristically, swore and knocked the hand away, an unheard of piece of malign derring-do in terms of the codes we lived by then. I was impressed and appalled in about equal measure. Now he was after me.

That evening the local cop rang up. My father took the call. He came off the phone to ask me if anything untoward had happened on my paper run that day? I said no. Dad talked to the cop for a few more minutes then hung up. I was even more terrified now, I'd lied to my father and, albeit by proxy, to the police as well.

I can't remember now how long it was before Constable Fraser - his daughter Marie, pronounced Maaari, was my sister's age and reputed to be the town bike - came round to our place but I do recall that I was out on the back lawn when he spoke to me. He said: You lied before, didn't you? Yes, I said. Something did happen on your paper run, didn't it? and Yes, I said again.

Well, then I had to tell him the whole sorry tale, about poking my tongue out at Frog Hayes and the threat he'd made and him driving too fast down Mole Street and having words with the woman, the one I'd given the paper to, the one who'd made the complaint, the one who'd helpfully put me forward as a possible witness ... it all came out in such a way that, by the end of it, I was so terrified I almost felt my life was as good as over, despite the fact that Constable Fraser reassured me that nothing would happen to me but that something bad would definitely happen to Frog Hayes.

How did it all end up? I really don't know. Perhaps Frog Hayes went to court and then to prison, perhaps they took his licence or his car off him. He certainly never crossed my path again, though I know I went in fear of him for weeks afterwards. One thing I never told the cop nor anyone else, perhaps not until this day, was that when he said he was going to throw me in the blackberry bush I pissed my pants.


Positive Contact

When my sons come to stay for the weekend, the elder one, who's nine, sleeps in here, in the study. When he was younger he always had trouble getting - though not staying - asleep; now, he seems to drop off more easily though he doesn't appear to need as much sleep as I expect, able to get by on eight or nine hours a night. He usually reads for a bit before asking for the light to be turned out but sometimes likes to listen to music instead. He selects a few songs from his folder on iTunes, turns the visualizer on and drifts off to something alarming (to me) like Outkast's Bombs over Bagdad ... or anything by Simple Plan, Good Charlotte, Green Day and such like.

Saturday night, he was settled, I thought, listening to the first of his nominated tracks, Positive Contact by Deltron 3030 aka Del the Funky Homosapien, when he suddenly reappeared in the sitting room saying he didn't want to listen to music after all. We turned the electronics off and I sat with him for a while, talking about what was wrong. He said he'd suddenly had the recurrence of a thought that scared him. The gist of it was that he would end up having done everything that could be done, thought everything that could be thought, experienced everything ... and yet still be alive. It was a vision of decrepit age without the relief of death.

It felt strange to be reassuring him that he would, in fact, die but that's what I did. He was relieved but still not entirely untroubled, saying that while he was glad he'd die and not have to remember everything, still ... I'm not quite sure how we arrived at the notion of reincarnation but, when we did, he felt much better. You mean, he said, I could have a whole new life, a whole new body and no memory of who I'd been before? Yeah, I said. That's fantastic! he replied. I might have lived millions of lives without knowing it! Thanks, Dad! He was asleep in minutes.

Next day I went through the conversation with him again, wondering what the song had to to do with it? Turned out that the first time he'd had the thought was while listening to that song the previous (= Friday) evening, and hearing it again had brought it back. I told him that some people claim to be able to remember their past lives but he didn't seem to find that thought very interesting. It was the notion of a new life, unaffected by the old, that intrigued him, and pointing out that you wouldn't know it was a new life unless you recalled the old left him unphased.

It's well known that children don't experience intimations of mortality before about age seven at the earliest but I find this particular take on it fascinating: it was aging and the loss of his powers that frightened him, without the benison of death; immortality struck him as a fearsome concept (which it is); but reincarnation solved all ontological problems at a stroke. I guess what impressed me most was that it was the persistence of ego that bothered him, not its evanescence.


Just now, coming up Smith Street, passing Rick Rack Retro, a shop selling fascinating and eclectically glamorous artefacts from the 1950s and 60s and even 70s, as well as a fine selection of second hand books, I saw in the window a hardback about German short-haired pointers and it triggered a memory. Alex ... I had to search for the surname ... Ward, with his blond hair and gappy teeth, my friend in Huntly, had a dog of that breed which he was training to go duck shooting with him. The duck shooting season began in May, the first I believe, and only went for a couple of weeks. People would set out for the lakes and swamps of the northern Waikato, the river marshes and the ox-bow bends, with their dogs and their shotguns to blast the ducks and the black swans out of the sky or off the dreaming waters ...

One day late in April, Alex and me and a couple of others - David Cowan? Roger Mackay? - were out on the vastly deserted playing fields of Huntly College, kicking a football around. Where was everyone else? In class, I suppose, and why we were not I don't remember. I was chasing a loose ball and, as Alex bent to scoop it up off the ground, I aimed a kick at it, missing the ball with my foot but collecting Alex on the temple, not hard, with my knee. He fell to the ground and then, as he started to get up, saying, not angrily, You bastard, Edmond ... jerked suddenly back and fell to earth again. His face turned grey and his skinny body started to spasm. His teeth were clenched hard together and a grinding sound came from his throat. He started foaming at the mouth. None of us had every seen anything like it before.

But I, even at fourteen an inveterate reader of the sporting pages of newspapers, had recently become fascinated by the story of a rugby player who'd swallowed his tongue, clenching his jaws so tight together someone had to use one of the poles - iron sheathed in plastic, ours were - that held the corner flag to force his teeth apart and retrieve the errant organ. This was what had happened to Alex I decided and, as his face turned from grey to blackish and the jolting of his body started to lessen, I kneeled down to try to clear his airways.

He was the most gat-toothed person I've ever known, so it wasn't difficult to get a purchase upon his incisors with my fingers and start to open that rictus up. But it was hard, harder than I would ever have imagined, to actually do it; I was convinced he was dying and that must have given me strength, for at last I did manage to get upper and lower jaw wide enough to reach my hand down into his maw for the swallowed tongue. I remember my astonishment at finding that, rather than being turned back and down his throat, it was merely stuck to the roof of his mouth in such a way as to block both throat and nasal passage. As soon as I depressed it, he went limp; and breathed again.

I don't know what the others were doing. With Alex lying still and pale and curled up on the ground, I turned and ran as fast as I could for the nearest classroom. It was a maths class, Mr. O'Brien, Sticky we called him. I remember as I gasped out my tale, looking down at my hands and seeing that the skin along the backs of my fingers and over my knuckles was torn and bleeding and covered with bits of Alex's saliva.

He survived, but they took him to hospital for observation and he missed the start of the duck shooting season, which really pissed him off. As for me, the wounds along the backs of my hand became infected and festered for a week or two before finally healing up again. There are no scars I can detect. Our friendship survived this peculiar hiccup without any deficit at all; but, since my family moved away from Huntly a couple of years later, I haven't seen Alex again. I heard he became a Quantity Surveyor. He had a sister called Merlene. His girlfriend's name was Jill Nightingale. He'd be 55 now if he's still alive.


smashing the atom / atomising the smash

An email from a friend yesterday asking if I had any photos of the old Pyrmont Incinerator, designed by Walter Burley Griffin, built in the 1930s, demolished in the 1990s. Its death knell came with the unauthorised and clandestine toppling of the stack one weekend in the 1970s, which consigned the building to the oblivion it met a decade or two later. I never saw it with the stack but I explored the ruin many times in the late 1980s when I lived on the shores of Blackwattle Bay and, later, on the peninsular itself. I have quite a few photographs of it, but they're prints and negs and I lack the means to get them onto my hard disc at present. However, there are a few images available on the net. The two here are, first, what it looked like in its prime:

Second is a view of how it was in its derelict state, like something translated from Meso-America to the shores of Sydney Harbour:

The photographs are taken from a similar point of view. When I knew the place, the small, chunky building at the entrance, seen on the left in the first photo, was still standing, although full of junk. The second photo is taken from a point a little to the west of the first, so that the entrance building, just out of frame to the right, does not obscure the incinerator proper.

The relief tiles on the incinerator were heavily symbolic, they symbolised, among other things, the solar system, the sun, the moon and the earth. Their designer, Marion Mahony, Griffin's wife, later wrote that the building records the basic fact of 19th century civilization later emphasised by the smashing of the atom.

Guess it's weirdly apt that it got smashed up in its turn. There's an apartment building there now.


On Trains

Don't say I never warned you
When your train gets lost

- Bob Dylan


Memory is a palimpsest, recent theory speculates. When we remember, we revisit and in that process revise a site we have been to before. In other words, we don’t go back to the unrecoverable original trace, but to our most recent remembrance of it. If this is so, each enactment becomes a re-enactment, each indulgence a re-indulgence, iteration piled upon iteration, past repletion, in a dizzying maze of revisions and reversions that makes a shape as repetitive, redundant and baroque as the Mandelbrot Set.

A memory is like a treasure box, then, full of objects that have been handled so often they are as if varnished with age. In the Tanimbar Islands in eastern Indonesia, this image is made literal: treasure boxes are taken, on special occasions, down from the rafters of the house, opened, the precious things within unwrapped and under the sightless eye sockets of the skulls of the ancestors, passed from hand to hand while their stories are re-told, after which both they and those who have handled them are ceremonially oiled before the taonga are re-stowed in the rafters.

My earliest memory is of a bull calf, Sooky; or rather, it is a memory of my solo visit to the bull calf’s paddock; but, curiously, this memory includes within it reference to an earlier occasion which, while it surely happened, I do not in fact recall. In this strange concatenation an opening appears, or seems to appear, into the dark backward that is childhood before memory traces are made, as in the testimony of those who claim to recall the unrecallable, their rupture from the womb.

I am walking down a path towards a gate. I am so small, and the grass on either side so tall, that the seed heads bend above me, making an arch. Cocksfoot, browntop, featherhead, rye. I am scared but determined. Scared because Sooky the bull calf lives in the paddock behind the gate and, although I have been this way before with my sisters (this is the recall inside the memory), I have never come alone. To come this way alone is also the root of my determination. I reach the end of the path and climb up the wooden slats of the gate set into a hedge, which is in fact more fence than gate, since I don’t know how, or even if, it opened. And I look at Sooky the black bull calf, who looks back at me with drool looping off his muzzle. Exultant and afraid, heart hammering, trembling …

That was when we rented the Farm House at Ohakune Junction off Mr McCullough, the Headmaster of the District High where my father taught. I am less then three years old because I was born while we lived in that house and we only stayed there three years before buying and moving into our own place in Burns Street. The Farm House had a long hilly drive down to the road and a cottage on the left near the bottom where another family lived. It was very close to the Main Trunk Line and we must have heard the trains passing daily and nightly, as they did in those days and perhaps still do.

Many years later, or ago, I tried to persuade myself I remembered the pattern on the linoleum floors of the corridors of Raetihi Hospital, where I came into the world, but this was either a recall of subsequent visits or a fiction. As a matter of fact, I was a large baby and in giving birth to me, my mother suffered a tearing of her abdominal muscles that necessitated an operation about six months later to repair the damage. In her autobiography she remarks that when Dr Jordan came to speak with her beforehand, he asked, as if he were God and she Eve, did she want a navel? Yes, she said, but ever after her belly was lumpy and wrinkled and on the few occasions I saw it, I felt a pang because I knew I had, albeit inadvertently, done that to her.

We were breastfed babies so I went back to the hospital with her for the op, but that is still too early for memories of linoleum. Nevertheless, when I consider that pre-conscious life, the one we all have and all forget, I sometimes imagine myself at her breast in the dead of night while the Limited Express passes up or down the island, its chuff-chuff-chuffa and hiss of steam, its whistle coming into or pulling out of the station—not a memory as such but a pre-memory, something lodged in the senses which would be reprised again and again, through just about every night of my childhood until I was ten years old, becoming a part of me, like mother’s milk.

Of course these nightly visitations mostly happened while I was sleeping and so must have been more like dreams; but there were many times when I woke in the Burns Street house and heard the north bound train labouring as it pulled across the face of Te Rangakaika, the range of bush covered hills before Ruapehu, just a mile or two away across the Mangwhero river and the Waimarino plain from where we lived. The enormous banshee-wail of the train whistle would echo off the flank of the mountain and ghost across the dark and otherwise silent land like a loneliness too awful for words, and it would be a comfort to snuggle back down under the covers and listen to the sound of the metal wheels dying along the rails.


I don’t know when the books of the Rev. W. Awdry entered my life but it must have been early. I still have some of the old hardback copies from my childhood; the sadly disintegrated one open on the desk beside me as I write is Railway Series No. 1, the very first, published in May 1945 by Edmund Ward of 16 New Street, Leicester, and reprinted twelve times before this impression, from October 1952, when I was just nine months old. It’s called The Three Railway Engines and has beautiful colour plate illustrations by C. Reginald Dalby.

The three engines are Gordon the Big Engine, Henry the Green Engine and Edward the Blue Engine and the picture on the first page shows six engines in one railway shed, none of which is Thomas the Tank Engine, with whom the series has since become indelibly associated. I’m not quite sure now who all the six engines in the picture actually are but I do know that, when young, I tended to conflate the children in our family with the Rev. W. Awdry’s engines. We were, in descending order of seniority, Gordon, Henry, James, Edward, Percy and Thomas. In this strange simulacrum of myself and my siblings, which transgendered all of my five sisters, I was James the Red Engine, a disagreeable character, vain and self-important, who suffers a calamitous fall. These original stories are in fact all quite disagreeable (one of their favoured words) in themselves, since, like the contemporary Snakes and Ladders, they attempt to narrate virtue rewarded and vice punished in a fairly hamfisted manner.

This didn’t bother me as a child because I didn’t really rate the morality tale ahead of the actual trials and tribulations of the engines themselves, their humiliations and heroisms, their failures and triumphs. Now when I open the books, it is the pictures that bring back those long ago emotions, for example the claustrophobic terror I felt and still feel at the sight of Henry the Green Engine being bricked up in a tunnel because he refused to allow his new coat of paint to get wet in the rain. In this instance, the moral failed to bite, since I could never see that anything done or not done by Henry justified such an horrific punishment.

Another peculiarity of these stories was that the clean, brightly coloured and personable engines, with their lips and eyes and noses, bore little resemblance to the heaving black oily steam-wreathed monsters that pulled the real trains we saw, more or less on a daily basis. The school I went to, Ohakune Primary, had running behind it a branch line connecting Raetihi and the Junction, and it was a favourite sport of ours, during or after school, to go up the back where the macrocarpas grew and watch the train go by.

It was a small engine, with perhaps a couple of trucks and one carriage for passengers, plus Guard’s Van, but tremendous for all that, with its hissing of steam and thundering of wheels. Sometimes we placed pennies on the track and marvelled at the way they returned elongated and skinny and bowed from being squeezed between wheel and rail. Sometimes, too, we indulged a fantasy that too close an encounter with a train would lead to you being sucked under the engine or the carriages, and so, having come as near as we dared, we clutched onto trackside bracken or scrub for support in an ecstasy of pretended fear for our lives.

The fatality of trains was real enough, however, as attested by the Tangiwai Disaster which, while it occurred when I was not quite two years old, loomed balefully over the rest of our lives in that place. For a long time you could see in the river bed the ruined carriages lying alongside the tumbled pillars of the bridge swept away by the combined weight of the north bound train and the lahar flooding out of Ruapehu’s crater lake; and everybody in that small community had a tale to tell, usually of loss and grief, though not always: Barry Reynolds, who lived a few doors up from us in Burns Street, coming home for Christmas, caught the train in Taihape and, because he rode in the almost empty first carriage which, with the engine, made it across before the bridge fell, survived the wreck.

And then there was the fatality of the Whangaehu (wan-guy-hoo, we said, not fanga-ehu) itself, the turbid stream, with its sulphurous smell and cloudy yellow waters, as if it was a river out of hell, whose malignity, it seemed to me, was a cause of the taking of the train and the death, among so many others, of laughing Clare Kennedy who had lived, with her sister Gay and her many Irish brothers, on a farm out at Karioi where we were lucky enough sometimes to go.


I never really understood why the railway station at Greytown, the place we moved to after leaving Ohakune, stood at Woodside, five miles from the town. It seemed unaccountable, given the flatness of the terrain, especially since all the other places on that line—Featherston, Carterton, Masterton, Eketahuna, Pahiatua, Mangatainoka, Woodville—had stations where they belonged, in or at least on the outskirts of town.

On the other hand, that railway line was in itself a kind of boy’s paradise we would ride to on our bikes at the weekend or in the holidays, to ramble untrammelled through the long dusty afternoons down the hot rails all the way to the river bridge where we swam in deep pools beneath the piles and sometimes heard the thrilling sound of a train going over above, shaking the world to its implacable core. Or perhaps it would be a jigger, those odd engineless vehicles that were worked up and down the rails by men, usually in pairs, operating levers.

Parallel to the train tracks on the further side there was a grassy step about a dozen feet high that marked the fault line of the 1855 earthquake, the same one that raised the shelf of land upon which the Hutt Road leading into Wellington runs. It was strange to contemplate the extreme regularity of this upthrust, suggesting as it did that somewhere beneath the chaos of appearances there was another, more arcane, geological order to things.

It was near this prodigy, in one of those mysterious gravel pits you find next to railway lines, that a group of us stripped off one day and compared our rapidly burgeoning private parts, searching out and counting the black pubic hairs just beginning to grow down there: he who had the most somehow thereby gained the highest status among us. I remember my own modest total, seventeen, but little else beyond the peculiarity of Douglas Workman’s cock, which, when erect, bent alarmingly to one side like a banana. And that Grant Batty, the future All Black, whom we called Butch, had the smallest one any of us had ever seen.

Further away, up in the wilds of the Rimutakas, were the remains of a railway worked, like the line in Awdry’s Mountain Engines, by trains that hooked onto a third chain-rail running along the centre between the other two. On a tramp up there one time I saw a stretch of this defunct track culminating in a tunnel that brought to mind the only one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories to have left a trace in my memory, about a ghost train that ran ferociously out of just such a derelict tunnel in the black of night towards some fatal destination. I have forgotten the probably mundane explanation for this phenomenon—smuggling perhaps—while retaining the image of the driverless engine hurtling on forever in all its terror and beauty.

If you were going to Wellington from Greytown, you went either by road over the windy Rimutakas or to Woodside to catch the railcar through the tunnel under them, coming out at Maymorn and traversing the evocatively named stations on that route: Brown Owl, Upper Hutt, Trentham, Silverstream, Taita, Naenae, Waterloo, Ava, Petone and then on through Ngauranga and Kaiwharawhara to the vastness of Wellington Railway Station, forever associated in my mind with the rolling stock full of rotting meat and oranges my father remembered seeing there during the Depression.

Woodside is in fact linked for me with my father in his aged state, because he retired to Greytown and sometimes after my visits to him he would drive me out to the station and I would leave by train. At one of these partings, on a bleak winter morning with the grey horizontal rain blowing off the Tararuas, as if negating my youthful priapism just down the line, he confided that he had not had an erection for years and furthermore that it was ‘a relief’. This was one of the side effects of the pills he took for his depression and his panic attacks.

After that dismal occasion, or another, I remember being at Woodville Station waiting for a train and, to get out of the cold, sheltering in the providentially open waiting room. For some reason I left the room for a moment, perhaps to go to the toilet, and the mean wind slammed the door shut behind me, locking my luggage inside. For those ten minutes or so, alone on the deserted platform, my habitual melancholy took on cosmic proportions and I utterly despaired, until a battered Vauxhall Velox made its uncertain way into the station carpark and a glum railwayman unlocked the waiting room door.

Those waiting rooms, in earlier days and on the Main Trunk Line, stayed open all night with a coal fire burning in the grate, a radio playing and some cheerful blokes sitting over it with mugs of railway tea and packets of Greys or Park Drive or Pocket Edition tobacco; I recall once at Taihape spending a few feet-warming hours in one of these listening, improbably, to rock ‘n’ roll records playing on a Sydney, Australia station they had somehow picked up.


We moved again, to Huntly, where our house at 5 Dudley Avenue on the derisively named Nob Hill overlooked a hillside of clay and gorse, the rugby league ground where Test matches were sometimes played, and the shunting yards that worked all night long as trucks of coal from the mines arrived and were assembled into trains by hard working diesel engines. By this time—but when did it happen?—steam engines were a curiosity you hardly ever encountered.

Branch lines served the mines both west and east of the town: Kimihia, Rotowaro, Glen Afton, Pukemiro, where little cottages clung to steep hillsides and in winter hardly saw the sun. At Trevor McLeish’s Glen Afton house, tiny as it was, the front room was never used unless there was a wedding or a funeral and the furniture in there lay silent and still under white covers while everyone crowded around the coal range in the kitchen, like an engine itself with its hot black iron and red and yellow lights, its hissing, steaming wetback.

Those nights at Dudley Avenue, especially Thursday nights, I would lie awake in my Education Department built prefabricated room away from the main house, in form not unlike a railway hut, listening to that incessant revving and clanging and crashing, wondering at the infernal energy that drove men to work around the clock; yet never once questioned the utility of the wagons of gleaming black coal because in all the years of my growing up we were never without a fire, sustained by lumps of coal that glowed on long after the wood had gone to powdery grey ash.

Huntly was on the Main Trunk Line as well but the Limited came through early in the evening, from Auckland, and then early the next morning, from Wellington, and the line was so busy that it seemed without the enormous significance it had in ‘Kune: just another train. Whereas the shunting yard has stayed with me and every time Red Alert, the rock ‘n’ roll band I went to America with, played their cover of Warren Zevon’s Nighttime in the Switching Yard I was back there in the wee small hours hearing that sound like industrial teeth grinding.

Later still, when we had moved from Huntly to Heretaunga, and my father suffered his first breakdown and my mother announced herself as a poet, it came to be time for me to leave home and I did so on the Limited Express. Though only notionally together by now, both parents saw me off, with my three younger sisters in tow, at the Wellington Railway Station and I rode the length of the Main Trunk Line to Auckland alone and for the very first time.

It was a memorable trip, not just because I was leaving home: early on, myself and another stray youth teamed up with two girls travelling together and, sitting in pairs opposite each other, with a tartan blanket over our knees (my mother had sewed my surname on one corner of it), we played cards for most of the night. I have forgotten the girl’s name but can still remember the delicious feeling of our legs entwined together under the blanket, though it seems strange to me now that that’s all we did. She wore tartan as well and was prettier than her friend, or so I thought at the time.

All through my University years we travelled home and away by train, stopping for refreshments at Frankton (Hamilton), Taihape and Palmerston North. You’d go to buy your pie or sandwich or cake and cup of tea in the station cafeteria and take the heavy crockery plate and cup and saucer, with their blue NZR monograms, back to your seat and afterwards leave them on the floor to be collected later by a railwayman with a wheeled wooden trolley that clunked up the aisle. They seemed unbreakable, even when one cut loose and rolled up and down or from side to side in the carriage. You could smoke on the train as well, and drink, though I don’t recall doing that.

Mostly you’d try to sleep against the two big white pillows hired on the platform before the journey began, surfacing at each stop to see the blurred shapes of people joining or leaving the train, their breath steaming in the cold night air, huddled into coats as they went to their cars. I always tried to stay awake through the King Country, say from National Park to Taihape if I was going south, because I loved seeing the white or dark outline of Ruapehu on the skyline, the romance of viaducts over bush-filled gorges, the to me intensely evocative huddle of railway houses at Ohakune Junction where all the loneliness in the world seemed domiciled and where I imagined for years my own estranged soul wandered with the ghosts of trees.

One summer in those University years—it must have been 1971-2—I spent travelling both islands doing casual agricultural work here and there, and ended up, at the fag end of January, as a farm hand on a Lands and Survey block out the back of Stratford, Taranaki, at a place called Pohokura. Our boss, a genial man with the improbable name of Herbie Blank, surpervised half a dozen Borstal boys and me about the daily tasks that are to be done running sheep and cattle on a fairly rugged back country farm.

Fridays, we’d go down to the railway line at the bottom of the drive and catch a ride on a train going to Whangamomona just a few miles east. We’d drink at the pub until closing time, when the same train, consisting of an engine, a couple of carriages and a guard’s van, trundled back to—Stratford I suppose. It’d let us off at the cattle stop on Herbie Blank’s drive and we’d roll up the hill to the shearers’ quarters and roll ourselves into our single wire frame beds to sleep it off till crack of dawn when the farm work started up again.

The New Plymouth to Taumarunui railcar went through on that line too and you could also hitch a ride on that if you wanted to. One morning I got up at 4 a.m. and went down the drive in a darkness so intense I literally could not see my hand in front of my face. When I saw the faint glow of the railcar’s headlight beam in the west, I stood out on the track waving my arms above my head, then leapt clear as the train approached. Somewhat to my surprise, it stopped; even more surprising, there wasn’t another passenger aboard, so I rode up front with the driver and the guard, whose sport was counting the possums sitting out on the rails that we squashed as we rocketed through the bush into the dawn.

I don’t remember what train I caught to Auckland but I do recall in intense lysergic assisted detail the Rolling Stones concert at Western Springs stadium that was my reason for going there. The moment Mick Jagger stepped to the microphone to sing the words of the old Robert Johnston song Love in Vain

When the traaaaiiiiiiin come in the staaaaaation ….

seemed to last forever and I can replay it in my mind any time I want. At the end of the concert, the huge black man who’d spent most of his time on stage slowly bouncing a big coloured ball, came forward with a bowl of rose petals with which Mick showered the audience—or at least those few within reach of the stage.

Next day, coming down again, I caught the train back to Pohokura. And not long after that, but I don’t know how long, trains ceased to be the first choice of travel among us and we began to go about by road, either hitch-hiking or driving in old cars we had somehow acquired.


When, a few years down the track, in Wellington, I wrote one of the first pieces of work I can still feel the magic of, it was a set of variations on a theme by W. B. Yeats, entitled Stations. The Yeats’ poem is called Hound Voice and begins: Because we love bare hills and stunted trees / And were the last to choose the settled ground / … Our voices carry; which for some reason reminded me of growing up in Ohakune. The work is in three parts and each part is named after a railway station: Horopito, The Junction, Tangiwai; all of them attempt to dramatise the moment of departure, a young man leaving on a train from a place he will never forget but won’t return to either. Romantic as that but I was young, just twenty-four at the time.

The work took its theme from Yeats but, formally, it was based upon a poem by Charles Olson, his Variations done for Gerald Van De Wiele, which includes three versions of the Rimbaud lyric from Une Saison en Enfer, the one that begins: O saisons, ô châteaux! / Quelle âme est sans défauts! // J’ai fait la magique étude / Du bonheur, qu’aucun n’élude. Olson translates: What soul / is without fault // Nobody studies / happiness … in the first of his versions.

Stations, which has not been published, was dedicated to my father and I sewed the few pieces of paper it consisted of between manila cards and bound them with a red ribbon to give to him. The booklet returned to me after his death but I don’t recall what comment he made about it, if indeed he made any. This was in strict contrast to my mother who, on the rare occasions I showed her any of my writing, usually had too much to say. It’s odd in retrospect to think that I hung on every word my father did not utter while largely discounting the admirably enthusiastic and informative commentary my mother lavished upon me. Praise can be harder to bear than silence.

These days, after seven biblical years beside the sea, I am once again living near a railway line—the Western Line, that goes from Sydney’s Central Station all the way across the continent to Perth. Sometimes I see the Indian Pacific pass through Summer Hill station in the mid afternoon; other times, usually on a Sunday, I hear the unmistakable chuff-chuff-chuffa and whooo-hooo! of a steam train going by and know it is the 3801, a restored Australian-built 1940s locomotive that does nostalgia runs up to Newcastle and back, one of which I went on, with my sons, for old time’s sake a few years ago.

But mostly what I hear, in the early morning hours, is the sounds of west-bound suburban trains that, by a quirk of architecture, rebound off the brick wall of the next door apartment building straight in my bedroom window. Then, half asleep, I am as if transported back to my childhood in that wooden villa in Burns Street under the spectral mountain, when our family was all one, unbroken, as we liked to imagine we would always be.

If I wake fully, as I often do, I might think about my parents, sundered in life and also in death, buried as they are on opposite sides of the tracks, as well as either side of the Rimutakas, he at Greytown, she in Akatarawa; but together then, during our King Country years. And this thought somehow leads on to a re-visioning of three images co-mingled and set together: the black bull calf Sooky bawling in the home paddock, the babe I was unconscious, milk-drunk at my mother’s breast, and the lonely sound of a train whistle blowing and the great steel wheels rushing by under the dark, bush covered hills of Te Rangakaika.

In all of this, where is my father? Practically speaking he was probably sleeping the sleep of the just as he prepared for another day’s teaching English and Physical Education to the pupils of Ohakune District High School. But in truth he is absent, or perhaps dispersed, partaking of both bull calf and steam train while fully inhabiting neither. While my mother remains the still point and unwobbling pivot of this ideal and quite possibly misbegotten fantasy.

Even so, if it is true that memory is a palimpsest, then this is one I write over again and again in search of the magic combination of letters that will set me free of it; though I know that such freedom is impossible and, even if it were possible, I would not really want it, because those images are me and I them and, like parents and children, without each other we would not exist. This is the strangeness of memory, that we indefatigably attempt to recapture, time after time, what cannot be recaptured.

Here in Summer Hill, after an early morning train passes, there’s always a silence more intense for the noise that has just been. If it’s too soon for the magpies to begin their carolling in the jacaranda tree, and there isn’t another sound to be heard, then my thought shifts away from birth and towards death, going west into the silence … and I wonder why so much melancholy, drama and romance is bound up in trains, why what is just a means of transport continues to have such intense metaphoric resonance for us.

And if I am unable to drop back off to sleep again, I might imagine that this resonance is because a life is indeed like a railway line, with a terminus at either end, and that my birth more than half a century ago in amongst those old cold hills will inevitably, after many stations and much various and variously enjoyed experience, end in death, perhaps in the midst of this thicket of streets and strangers, perhaps somewhere else. I might even remember the concluding lines from Stations and say them over softly, as if talking in my sleep, with a peculiar awareness that words once purporting to describe a young man stepping optimistically forth into the world might now be read as a kind of memento mori:

The station master says
the train will be along on time
any minute now

He puts some coal on the fire
he turns up the radio

The waiting room stays
open till the sun

shines in along the floor.