I want to say a few words about the job of a script-writer, if only to give a better understanding of my feelings at that time. As everyone knows, the script-writer is the one who - generally in collaboration with another script-writer and with the director - writes the script or scenario: that is, the canvas from which the film will later be taken. In this script, and according to the development of the action, are minutely indicated, one by one, the gestures and words of the actors and the various movements of the camera. The script is, therefore, drama, mime, cinematographic technique, mise en scene and direction, all at the same time. Now, although the script-writer's part in the film is of the first importance and comes immediately below that of the director, it remains always, for reasons inherent in the fashion in which the art of the cinema has hitherto developed, hopelessly subordinate and obscure. If, in fact, the arts are to be judged from the point of view of direct expression - and one does not really see how else they can be judged - the script-writer is an artist who, although he gives his best to the film, never has the comfort of knowing he has expressed himself. And so, with all his creative work, he can be nothing more than a provider of suggestions and inventions, of technical, psychological and literary ideas; it is then the director's task to make use of this material according to his own genius and, in fact, to express himself. The script-writer, in short, is the man who remains always in the background; who expends the best of his blood for the success of others; and who, although two-thirds of the film's fortune depends on him, will never see his own name on the posters where the names of the director, of the actors and of the producer are printed. He may, it is true - and as often happens - achieve excellence in his inferior trade, and be very well paid; but he can never say: "It was I who made this film ... in this film I expressed myself ... this film is me." This can only be said by the director, who is, in effect, the only one to sign the film. The script-writer, on the other hand, has to content himself with working for the money he receives, which, whether he likes it or not, ends by becoming the real and only purpose of his job. Thus all that is left for the script-writer is to enjoy life, if he is capable of it, on the money that is the sole result of his toil ... now, working together on a script means living together from morning to night, it means a marriage and fusion of one's own intelligence, one's own sensibility, one's own spirit, with that of other collaborators; it means, in short, the creation, during the two or three months that the work lasts, of a fictitious, artificial intimacy whose only purpose is the making of the film, and thereby, in a last analysis ... the making of money. This intimacy, moreover, is of the worst possible kind - that is, the most fatiguing, the most unnerving and the most cloying that can be imagined, since it is founded not on work that is done in silence, as might be that of scientists engaged together on some experiment, but on the spoken word ... indeed, the mechanical, stereotyped way in which scripts are fabricated strongly resembles a kind of rape of the intelligence, having its origin in determination and interest rather than in any sort of attraction or sympathy. Of course, it can also happen that the film is of superior quality, that the director and his collaborators were already, beforehand, bound together by mutual esteem and friendship, and that, in fact, that the work is carried out in the ideal conditions that may occur in any human activity, however disagreeable; but these favourable combinations are rare - as, indeed, good films are rare.

Alberto Moravia, A Ghost at Noon (1955)


keeper of the elephants memory

She was called Mollie. Bought from Thailand in 1947 for/by Bullens Circus. Aged sixteen years when she died. Was it 1956 or 57? Don't know yet. Was I four turning five or five turning six? Before or after that first year of school? Same answer. The six elephants walked down Railway Row to the Showground. One put a foot in Mr Brailey's potato patch. One took an orange from Mrs Brailey's shopping bag. One ate Tutu. There's more, much more ...


laureate log

The new New Zealand poet laureate, Michele Leggott, has a weblog.


updating the elephants

So far I have learned:

Wrigleys may have been a mis-hearing of Ridgeways but Ridgeways Circus could not have been the one that came to Ohakune in the late 1950s or early 1960s because they did not exist until 1966 - before then they were known as Cole Brothers Circus.

Ridgeways had three elephants, called Dolly, Bimbo and Sheba. Sheba choked to death in Christchurch on a small twig from a branch of a tree she was eating. She was buried there. Bimbo was put down because of a terminal bone disease late 1970's. Dolly was still in action in 1968.

Wirths lost an elephant called Betty to tutu poisoning in 1950.

Doug Ashton of Ashtons Circus is still alive and said it was certainly not one of his elephants - although one did suffer tutu poisoning in New Zealand - it survived.

Ginni, an elephant with Soles, in 1959 likewise survived hemlock poisoning - that was around Rotorua.

Bullens elephant Sally, 25 years old, 3 ton in weight, died on Sunday, April 17th 1960 at Riversdale railway siding (58 miles north-west of Invercargill) after drinking from a 44 gallon drum of water that had previously contained weed killer.

In 1964 Rill, an elephant with Soles/Wirths, ate tutu but eventually recovered.

There is known to be an elephant that died in the North Island around the probable time of the Ohakune incident but so far the name of the animal, nor that of the circus, nor the place of the event have been uncovered.

The Ohakune elephant was probably not called Rajah - generally a name given to lions.

This information kindly provided by New Zealand circus historian John Sullivan, who further says the Ohakune elephant was definitely not with Bullens, Wirths or Ashtons, all of which were large circuses with big elephant numbers – that is, six to nine animals. That leaves Coles/Ridgeways as the most likely.

I am still confused on the relation between Coles and Soles.

Mark St. Leon, scion of an Australian circus family and also a circus historian, told me that it is not uncommon, when the sites of old show grounds are excavated to build supermarkets, for elephant bones to be uncovered.

A fellow I met yesterday described a sequence from a documentary film he remembered from his youth. They interviewed an old lion tamer, whose then job was to give the elephants an enema before their performance. The interview was conducted in situ, he was wearing prophylactics, a raincoat and hat - when asked if he would ever retire and he said he could never give up show biz ...

I also learned, serendipitously, that elephants used in Burma to fell and bring out teak, sometimes contracted anthrax. Black spots would appear on their rumps, rapidly swelling into great buboes – eventually these would become of such size that the animal’s anus would become blocked, meaning that they could not shit. As soon as the signs appeared on an elephant, everyone else, men and beasts, would flee the logging camp; but the elephant’s keeper, joined by an indissoluble bond, would sometimes stay with his charge and share its agonizing fate.



the seven ages of (a) man

When I was seven I saw the elephant's grave. In love with Florence Moule. And she with me. We lived happily never after.

At fourteen, my nipples swelled painfully and sometimes expressed a milky fluid. Judy Singer was my good friend. Her breasts were hardly larger than mine. I never told her. Never told anyone.

Woke up on my twenty-first in a cow paddock east of Murapara. Hitching to Wellington with Vic Filmer. Had left university to become a writer. Disastrously. Too young.

Twenty-eight. L.A. Red Mole's Numbered Days in Paradise at The Odyssey Theatre in Santa Monica. Lorraine, their secretary, gave me flowers. I didn't really know her.

Thirty-five. Kawau Island. Coming down from an acid trip. A beautiful swim in the gulf. Then a terrible yacht ride back to the Sandspit with a family friend. Ken Lawn. He died ten days later.

Cannot really remember turning forty-two. In Darlinghurst. Drug haze perhaps. Or a party. Or both.

Seven sevens are forty-nine. Pearl Beach, out on the deck. Drank too much port, there was a bad fight between my girlfriend and my friend. We split not long after. I think we're doing ok with the kids.

Fifty-six ...


The Elephant's Memory

When I was younger, so much younger than today ... the circus came to town. It was (maybe) the Wrigley Brothers Circus, and among their animals was an elephant called (I think) Rajah. This unfortunate beast had plucked from roadside vegetation enough of the local shrub known by us as Toot - that is, tutu or coriaria arborea - to cause its death. I imagine it extending its trunk through the bars of its trailer-borne cage as the circus trucks laboured up one of the steep, dusty, bush-flanked roads of the King Country on their way to Ohakune. The death of Rajah was a sensation in our town and crowds attended his burial at the old showgrounds at the Junction, just over the other side of the Main Trunk Line, where the road goes on up into Tongariro National Park and climbs the mountain, Ruapehu. I am unsure if I was at the actual funeral but have a very clear memory of the burial mound itself, a great pile of bulldozed yellow-brown dirt with a tiny bunch of flowers placed absurdly, poignantly, at the top. Anyway. Sometime in the 1970s, at a house in Wellington, I said to the room that there was an elephant buried at the Junction in Ohakune. A well known poet who was there seized upon this remark and incorporated it into a longish poem he was writing at the time. I didn't think he had a right to the story but was too much in awe of him to say anything. When I heard him read the poem at Downstage Theatre, I cringed when that line came out verbatim; and was relieved to find it dropped from the published version of the poem. So far so neurotic ... Later that same decade I discovered that the painter, Philip Clairmont, had also witnessed the elephant's burial. He was staying, with his mother, at the house of the local doctor, one Graeme Shanks. When I came to write my book on Phil's life and work, I put in a short account of the elephant's grave and also a rather longer version of a peculiar interview I conducted with Dr Shanks in his Christchurch home. Recently, that is, a couple of weeks ago, a friend wrote to me from Auckland saying she had been at a dinner party where the subject somehow came up. It turns out that, in the early 1960s, the elephant's bones were disinterred from their great pit and taken up to the university, where they became the property of the biology department and may even be on display in their museum. My friend gave me the source of this story and suggested I write to him for further details. He is someone I haven't met but did correspond with on another matter a couple of years ago. So I dropped him a line the other day ... the response came yesterday morning: Yes I do know most of what there is to be known about the Ohakune elephant. However it's a story I intend to use in a book of anecdotes I have in preparation and so you'll understand that at this stage I'm reluctant to pass it on to someone else ... Now my question is: why did this make me feel so bad? I thought I was immune to such disappointments. And yet, while I went about my usual occupations, all day there was an underlying feeling of desolation - not too strong a word. As if something had been taken from me. It wasn't that I wanted to write anything more about the elephant, just that I would have liked a bit more information. I don't know what year it was, only that it must have been before 1962, because that's when we left that town. I'm not sure if I have recalled the name, Rajah, correctly. How long between burial and disinterment? And so on. Another question: why should any of this matter? When the poet took my remark and put it in his poem, I was affronted because I felt the story belonged to me, not him. Now, I seem to be affronted because someone else has said the story belongs to him, not me. Do these stories belong to anyone exclusively or are they the property of a community? I remember the night that Phil and I discovered we had that unusual childhood experience in common. It was a perhaps minor coincidence that had a big effect: without that elusive shared memory, I'm not sure that I would have felt the impetus to take on the arduous and intimidating task of trying to write his life. I might not have felt the degree of fragile entitlement I did feel. Why won't this fellow tell me what he knows? It is an unthought consequence of his refusal that now I am resolved to find out all I can. Why? Not sure. Don't really know. For the elephant's memory ...