Lake Dieri

Doris Lessing is someone whose advice I've tried to follow since my grumpy older sister, who in some respects resembles her, handed on The Golden Notebook to me in, I don't know, 1969 or 70. It seems incredible that I read that book then but I did, even though I remember nothing about it. The Four Gated City left stronger traces but they too are faint.

When I wasn't much older I read some exasperated comments she made about writing. It was to the effect that she kept meeting people who claimed to be writers but when she asked what they had written, or were writing, the answer was: Nothing much. A writer should write, she snapped. That particular comment made me blush secretly for years, because I was one of those nothing much kind of writers.

In a mellower mood she once remarked on the peculiar way that, when you are researching or otherwise engaged with a subject, things to do with it come unexpectedly into view. The role of coincidence in research is a subject that might make for an interesting essay. Maybe it's just a function of attention but maybe it's equally a function of inattention. Sometimes the things you need come to hand precisely when you aren't thinking about them.

Today I was a bit hungover but I was happy. It was as if a metaphorical (= real) jackboot had just been lifted from the back of my neck. Not just mine. After writing up a few notes I made in the State Library yesterday, I thought I'd go for a swim before lunch. A dozen laps of the Ashfield pool, during which I collided with a back-stroking Chinese man. Later we stood at the shallow end and chatted. We are the same numerical age but he is a Snake while I am a Rabbit. I hope I bang into you again, I said, making him laugh and demur at the same time.

There's a couple of second hand bookshops along from the pool. The one further towards Croydon belongs to a bookbinder who sometimes works away at his table there but today was just idling. I browsed a book on the Darling (The Ugly River), another on Atlantis, saw that he has a Shorter Oxford Dictionary for sale that I might have to go back for (the 1969 edition, a bargain at $70.00). A young Chinese woman was looking for a vernacular dictionary. She was a Mandarin speaker. I mentioned that our new leader speaks Mandarin. Yes, she said, My husband vote him in! I voted him in too, I said. The bookbinder grinned and murmured in his throat what sounded like: Me too. All Chinese vote him in! the woman said. I told the bookbinder I might come back tomorrow for the dictionary and went down to the other shop.

It's more crammed, more like your typical miscellany. Just as I stepped inside a middle-aged Chinese woman passed in the street, singing out loud, in Chinese, a haunting melody. Things are getting better and better, I thought, intending to move up the back of the shop where the literary texts are. Then I remembered there are usually art books just to the right by the door and turned to those shelves. Right in front of me was a book called The Desert Sea. By Vince Serventy. Who, until his death earlier this year, lived up at Pearl Beach where my kids also live. I spent a revelatory couple of hours with him once, he was critiquing something I'd written.

One of the most persistent impressions I was left with after driving north from Broken Hill through far western NSW was that of a vast, albeit dry, catchment area. You cross literally hundreds of watercourses, all tending in an east west direction. There are beds of dried up lakes, and there are, here and there, dazzling saltpans. Of course everybody knows the absurd trope of an Inland Sea, that chimera so many early explorers looked for in vain. But as we drove through those strangely marine, or at least lacustrine, deserts, it didn't seem so crazy after all. I thought a lot about it on the trip, and subsequently; I looked at maps and in the atlas, and in the end decided that all those ghostly rivers probably, ultimately, flowed into Lake Eyre. Which is dry at the moment but fills up each time a drought breaks.

Well, Vince's book, from 1985, is a history of Lake Eyre, and of its prehistoric precursor, Lake Dieri. Lake Dieri was huge. It was a veritable Inland Sea. Everything west of the Great Dividing Range as far as ... two bastions of ancient rocks to the west of the continent. In the Miocene it was open to the sea, the bones of dolphins have been found. And crocodiles. That part of the trip, up the Silver City Highway to Tibooburra and then on through Sturt National Park into the Channel Country of south west Queensland, in fact took us along the eastern margins of Lake Eyre's enormous catchment, fully one sixth of Australia. As well as through the antediluvian bed of Lake Dieri. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, that drive, that country, is what I'm hoping to write up this week. So I was very happy to buy The Desert Sea, for $5.00, and bring it home to read on a sultry Sunday afternoon, the first of the Mandarinate.



... I don't know just where I am. Am I in the public bar at Maiden's Hotel, Menindee, watching a TV upon which is Doris Lessing looking grumpy about getting the Nobel prize? Or am I in the dining room next door examining a brick from the original hotel upon which someone has painted a view of the hotel in which there is a brick upon which someone has painted a view of the hotel ... ? Or wandering down Emerald Street in South Melbourne looking for real clues to the fictional Cody's Boarding House that I wrote was here? Why do I keep thinking I am at the heart of the oneiric pantopticon that once stood where the old Darlinghurst Gaol is now? (You can see it, the panopticon, in a view of old Sydney Town in a show now on at the Museum of Sydney.) Maybe I'm standing at Dost Mohamed's grave out on the lonely plains where he used to pray, with the two tombstones, one old and faded and beautifully unreadable, the other a brand-new slab with the identical letters cut incisively into it. Or on top of the slag heap that over looks, looks over the Victorian-Colonial town of Broken Hill. (They'll mine that slag heap again one day, for sure. Even if they have to take down the Miners Memorial to do it.) Or perhaps I'm at the bottom of Myall Street, Balranald, on the banks of the Murrumbidgee, gazing down at stars so deep in the depth of black water they are further away than ... the stars. Among the miniature mesas and buttes of the Gol Gol. In a cave on the rocky slopes of Mt. Hope where there used to be a still. Quietly watching purple swamp hens play in the reeds at a Darling bend. Or am I, like they say really, at a Punch & Judy Show on some corner in London Town about, oh, about 1821. Just as Punch persuades the Constable (played by John Howard) to put his own head in the noose. Sometimes ... I just don't know.


a lyrebird

& an emu

by Richard Browne (1776-1824)


Johnny Nation Died

Not driving at the mo', just writing. A different rhythm. Spend the morning piling up words, or stringing them like beads on what seems like an increasingly fragile string - will it hold? - then the afternoons are mine to do what I will. Not much. Often call in at St. Vinnies around lunchtime, why I'm never sure, since there's nothing I really want. Or nothing I know I want.

Today when I went in Christine, the manager, was behind the counter. Her face lit up. Friends of hers had been over staying. From Wanganui. That's where she's from. When I was kid, I told her, growing up in Ohakune, Taihape was our Auckland but Wanganui was our New York. Her friends had given her some names. If he's really a 'Kune boy, they'd told her, he'll know them. Yeah? I went. Johnny Nation died, she said.

Johnny Nation!
I said. He was the Mayor. She looked momentarily disparaging. Yeah, she said. But he was also the baker. He was, too. She mentioned his eclairs. His was one of those emblematic names. Along with Mrs Goldfinch, Ben Winchcombe, Frank Woodward, Dr. Jordan. Incommensurable names, that seemed to have the whole world in them.

Christine left the counter and went to the back of the shop, up the stairs, out of sight. I drifted after her towards the shelves of second hand books, wondering if the quiz was over. She was back in a minute, standing above me at the head of the stairs, smiling down. Len and Jim Moule, she read, off a scrap of paper. Know them? I felt the kind of dizziness you get when time collapses. Florence Moule, I said. She was my first girlfriend. We were in love ... even though we weren't old enough to be, we were. She died ...

Florence was a vivid girl, skinny and brown, with straight thick chestnut hair. We loved each other in that childish way that wants to tangle limbs together under the pines or in the long grass. To kick each other's shins below the desk when we sat opposite at long tables in Primer Four. To rendezvous out the back after school and kiss in the shadow of the concrete steps. To just ... be. With each other.

Mole, Christine said. Spelled M O U L E. That right? It was, but I felt there might still have been a doubt there. Her sister, I said. Can't remember her name. She wrote the local history, I've got it at home. I'll show it to you ... took us a while but we got it in the end: Merrilyn George. She teaches at Ruapehu College, where my father did. It's his copy of her book I have, signed and dated: T. C. Edmond, 1990, which is also the year he died.

Christine had met her. She's a smart woman, she said. She is. I've met her too, in the History Room at the Centennial of the Ohakune Primary School, February, 1996. Her beautiful, deep set, slighty hooded eyes had filled with tears when we'd talked about Florence. Whom she resembled more than a little.

Christine said she was going to have a cigarette. I went with her, just up the road, to the bench outside the old Summer Hill Post Office. Sat with her while she puffed on a pre-rolled rollie. I told her about the time Florence picked the top off a wart on her skinny brown knee, how the blood ran down her leg, how hundreds of tiny warts flowered along the path the blood took, on the inside of the calf muscle. How her death from leukemia, sometime in the 1990s also, seemed prefigured in this childhood prodigy.

Don't know what else to say now. Johnny Nation died. So did Florence Moule. Reverberations, insignificant as they may be ... reverberate. Memories are like hunting horns, dying along the wind.


rotten glad : part two

Tom's most well, now, and got his bullet around his neck on a watch-guard for a watch, and is always seeing what time it is, and so there ain't nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I'd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a tackled it and ain't agoing to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilise me and I can't stand it. I been there before.