So I'm off to Bluff tomorrow. Fly to Christchurch, then to Invercargill then shuttle to Bluff where we are convening, in the first instance, at a pub called the Anchorage / Golden Age. Staying the first three nights on a marae, Te Rau Aroha, thence to Rakiura / Stewart Island, for the next two. I haven't stayed on a marae since the 1970s. We'll be sleeping all together in rows on mattresses on the floor around the walls of the whare nui I imagine, though there might not be too much sleeping going on ... very excited about re-visiting Rakiura, it was a fabled place for me from when I was young, my father used to tell me about how beautiful it was and promised that, one day, he would take me there. For various reasons he never did but, not long after he died, I went there with / without him ... and found it as wonderful as he had said. And ... I really do need to get completely away from here, what with the book finished, the screenplay all but done, the Luca edit within a whisker of completion ... I feel ... dislocated ... like ... bluffing ...

(details of the event can be found here, just click on Bluff O6)

a note on the below

There's something immensely cheering about a film, made by an Australian born director, Roger Donaldson, that shows such active and intimate affection both for New Zealanders and Americans.


hick tears

Because I'm about to go to the deep south of the South Island for a weekend ... because I am so sick of sunny hot blue days ... because it was Easter Monday and I was hung over ... or just because ...

I went to see The World's Fastest Indian yesterday afternoon. It was disconcerting suddenly to find myself back in New Zealand in the 1960s. Or, a depiction of same. I can remember how, when someone had been away and came back, their loved ones would meet them and, instead of hugging or kissing or whatever, would stand around looking pleased and embarrassed. Blushing. The early sequences of the movie are like that: everyone pleased and embarrassed, with the exception of Anthony Hopkins who plays the lead: eccentric, bloody-minded, beneficent, obsessed Burt Munro.

Later Burt goes to the States with his bike and has adventures. These sequences put me painfully and nostalgically in mind of the time, in the late 1970s, when I went with a group of Kiwi musos to Los Angeles and San Francisco. With all of the naive optimism and good-hearted simple-minded fantaticism of Burt Munro. We were treated with great kindness, not unmixed with amusement, too. By most people. Though some did steal from us, not that that was very hard to do.

Burt makes it and then comes home again, where everyone stands around looking even more pleased and only slightly less embarrassed than they did before he went away.

It's a very sentimental film and I cried here and there involuntarily, like a kid, sometimes almost angrily wiping away the tears I did not want to be shedding.

In that part of New Zealand, there's a regional accent, people burr and roll their rrrrs; Anthony Hopkins got the burr alright but to my ear did not quite get the rest: those flat vowels that are reluctantly spoken, as if people were unwilling to let the sounds go out of their mouths. A minor point of verisimilitude perhaps: most reviews have praised his accent.

The film's been a huge hit in New Zealand, natch, the way Crocodile Dundee was here and for similar reasons; but it lacks the Croc's macho edge and flash, smart-arse stunts. Burt Munro's too much of a charmer, a sweetheart, ever to try to put one across anyone. The only time he gets angry it's very funny and there could perhaps have been more of that characteristic deadpan wickedly oblique abuse. Even when he races, he only races himself. Not only is he immune to embarrassment but the film, with great decency and tact, avoids the many opportunities there are to put one across him: a rarity these days, perhaps.

So I guess my tears were hick tears after all: embarrassment and recognition, all mixed up with love of home.


Well I did finish drafting my book, which for the mo' I'm calling White City, yesterday. I was somewhat alarmed, when I did the stats, to find that it's 75,000 words long, including the prologue I wrote late last year. Took about three months to assemble the rest, from late Jan. to mid-April. Worked every weekday bar Australia Day and one other mid-week Wednesday when I had a crisis and couldn't. But what is it? I don't know. And may not for quite a while yet. If it was all a big waste of time, that wouldn't be a first. I've got three other unpublished books to my 'credit'. One is just awful and must be destroyed sometime, though I have extracted from it a novella that I think might be okay. Another involves intimate family matters and my sisters and my mother, who was still alive then, in a rare act of unanimity, nixed it. The third I probably could publish somewhere if I really tried but lack the enthusiasm; it isn't bad, it just isn't very good.

A White City by the way is an amusement park. The term originated in 1893 as a name for the World's Columbian Exposition and Fair in Chicago, because of the predominantly white buildings there. Curiously, this Fair had an influence upon Walter Burley Griffin's winning design for the (very off white) City of Canberra. There was and is a White City in Sydney, it's behind Rushcutters Bay in the eastern suburbs, where the NSW Lawn Tennis Association has its HQ; before Luna Park was built at Milsons Point there was an earlier version here and the name has stuck. Taxi drivers still use it and it appears on some maps as the name of a tennis club. I picked it up from driving years ago but it wasn't until I read Laurie Duggan's Ghost Nation: Imagined Space and Australian Visual Culture, 1901-1939 just recently that I understood the provenance. So, yes, a facade which I hope is tacky and colourful enough to beguile readers into entering the mirk labyrinth I've tried to construct behind ... like a ride on the Ghost Train? Or a sojourn in Giggle Palace? Or a trip to the Crazy House perhaps ...


a small essay

Have been looking at Sidney Nolan:

who said that without Ern Malley:

there would have been no Ned Kelly:

but before Ned there was:

Catani Gardens.

(all paintings by Sidney Nolan: Self Portrait, 1943; Ern Malley, 1974; Ned Kelly, 1946; Catani Gardens, 1945)


The last few days temperatures have been in the high 20s and early 30s. Clear blue skies with streams of cirrus. Mornings and evenings are cooler. Can't remember when it last rained. Right now, a big golden moon, only slightly dented, one night away from full, is rising over the City while in the west the blue fades down to a pale lemon colour that is almost white, with the church steeple standing black against it. I'm very tired. Not physically, mentally. Almost exhausted - I have to make one more effort, or perhaps two, and then I will be at the end of my book. Not book, draft of book, because I can see already how much more there is to do; but at least I will have a whole to do it to or with, a complete thing: even if it's not the wondrous shining shape I thought of making, it has some shape, some kind of reality, it exists ... today, in the afternoon, I was going over the editing notes on Luca Antara, section 3, which has interpolated into it a long account of a voyage which I pretend is real, or at least derived from a real document, but is in fact a fiction. And I remembered how false it seemed to me at the time of writing - perhaps not false so much as implausible, I didn't believe anyone would believe it, without remembering that we don't only read to believe, sometimes we do it to travel, to forget, to dream, to change. So then I wondered if what I'm doing now, which seems just as false, implausible, unbelievable, might in a year's time seem ... I don't know, I'll settle for anything really so long as it is different from this feeling I have now: exhaustion, futility, loss, as if all those long strings of words were just like the streams of cirrus that appear in the sky sometimes and then, next time you look, they're gone. So I look out the window and the sky is green, there's a plane flying west and Orion, who lies on his side at this latitude and is seen by Polynesians as a waka or canoe, is setting sail into the black south land.


The Total Library

It has been a very great pleasure this week to have by my side The Total Library: Non-Fiction, 1922-1986 by Jorge Luis Borges. For any number of reasons, most of which I won't go into now. Best of all, perhaps, has been the fortuitous intersections that have occurred with things I've been working on, which simply would not have turned out the same did I not have Borges to stay (it is, of course, a library book). Most of the week, I was struggling with the edit of one of the more intractable parts of Luca Antara, wherein I tried to summarise the beliefs of certain Gnostic sects from Alexandria early in the first millenium CE. Not easy, not easy at all. However, I managed to improve (I think) upon what I had and sent the section back to the editor for her comments yesterday. This morning I read a luminous essay Borges wrote in 1932 called A Defense of Basilides the False, which covers some of the same ground I was attempting to mark out, with an elegance and an erudition I can't claim, and yet - and this is another reason to love Borges - reading it did not make me think less of what I had done, nor did it make me think more of it; rather it allowed, perhaps, another viewpoint from which to contemplate it. The essay concludes:

In the first centuries of our era, the Gnostics disputed with the Christians. They were annihilated, but we can imagine their possible victory. Had Alexandria triumphed and not Rome, the bizarre and confusing stories that I have summarized would be coherent, majestic and ordinary. Lines such as Novalis' "Life is a sickness of the spirit," or Rimbaud's despairing "True life is absent; we are not in the world," would fulminate from the canonical books. Speculations, such as Richter's discarded theory about the stellar origins of life and its chance dissemintation on this planet, would know the unconditional approval of pious laboratories. In any case, what better gift can we hope for than to be insignificant? What greater glory for a God than to be absolved of the world?


The Profumo Scandal

In today's paper, an obituary (from the London Telegraph) of John Profumo who died, aged 91, some weeks ago. He is described as Politician, charity worker, because after the 1963 scandal that destroyed his parliamentary career, he devoted the rest of his life to Toynbee Hall, a charity based in London's East End; one of his co-workers there said We think he's a bloody saint. I can never see his name without a quickening of excitement.

I had just turned eleven when the scandal broke in London. I'd recently started a paper run, taking over from a boy who was fired for selling the papers he was meant to be delivering to random strangers and pocketing the money. His name was John Cole and he reckoned he was going to beat me up for taking his job but he never did. His father was the local taxi driver, with a fleet of two pink Ford Zephyrs; later he was to hang himself in his garage over some murky business involving his wife, John's mother, and another man.

Every afternoon but Sunday I'd ride my bike down to the local newsagency where, in a small back room that smelled of ink and newsprint, I'd count out eighty copies of the Wairarapa Times Age, just delivered by truck from Masterton. I'd put them in my paper bag, forty each side, then sling the bag over the bar of my bike and set out on my five mile run ... West Street, Kuratawhiti Street, Udy Street, Mole Street, Wood Street, Kempton Street, West Street again. Hawke Street aka Lover's Lane, was on my route, as were several apple orchards and berry fruit farms, so there were lots of opportunities to get up to mischief and I either took them or didn't depending on the day and the company.

But then, the Profumo Scandal broke, and I forgot everything else in breathless contemplation of the strange new world it uncovered. Every day, in the Times Age, below the fold on the front page, there would be a report of the latest revelations. Often, too, there would be photos of svelte, dark Christine Keeler or blond brazen Mandy Rice-Davies, both of whom I was head over heels in love with. Or of a ratty looking Stephen Ward, or Russian attache Ivanov, or of Profumo himself, the War Minister, with his domed head and sombre expression.

I'd cycle away from the shop with my load, deliver the first few papers, then lean my bike on a fence somewhere, fold a copy of the paper over the handlebars and read the latest about the salacious goings on in London - people whipping each other! swimming naked in Lord Astor's pool! having weird sex! in threesomes! - then spend the rest of my run in dizzy contemplation of these things. Much of it I didn't understand, and much that I thought I did I was probably wrong about, but that wasn't really the point. Here was a portal opening into an adult world I knew nothing about, that was enticing, wicked, sexy, wild and free.

It's odd now to reflect that many of the things that were going on a world away were also happening, literally behind the curtains of the houses to which I delivered newspapers, albeit without great wealth or power politics being engaged; the art teacher at the college, for instance, whose house was on my run, was engaged in a sexual intrigue with another member of staff, not his wife, who also taught (home economics I think) there, and was herself having it off with the Physed teacher. Or John Cole's father, whose wife's infidelity drove him to suicide. Or any number of other local scandals that unfolded during the four years we spent in that town.

I was what was called a late developer; perhaps I still am; I hadn't really started adolescing at age 11. Which suggests, I don't know, that my frisson of excitement at the scandal was emotional and intellectual rather than purely sexual. I don't recall being erotically excited by it, I think I was too young. But I sure was fascinated. Probably I learned more from that particular episode than I did either from the talk that went on among boys at school or the primly diagrammatic sexual education book, with green covers, that my mother wordlessly handed me some time after the scandal, to my great regret, passed from the news.


Just before making a morning cup of coffee I remember a book I saw yesterday but for some reason did not buy, even though it was both affordable and desirable. I walk around the corner to the shop to see if it's still there: they've tidied the shelves but yes, it is, at the end of the row on the top. I buy it and bring it home: Hoaxes, by Curtis D. MacDougall, a 1958 Dover reprint of a book originally published by Macmillan in 1940. The Cardiff Giant ... the curse of King Tut ... the invasion from Mars ... the letter of Pontius Pilate ... Keely's perpetual motion ... the Loch Ness Monster ... the Jersey Devil ... and scores of other hoaxes ... written on the cover. It's only later, when I'm reading in the Sydney Morning Herald about a property dispute that's been before a court in Kolkata, India since 1833, that I look up and see today's date at the head of the page. And wonder, not for the first time, who is fooling whom?