Henson Street

There's a Henson Street in Summer Hill. Four streets over from where I live, in the direction of Ashfield. Just an ordinary suburban street - if ordinary is ever the word for such places. One of the houses has a topiary garden out front where the bushes are cut into animal shapes, a kind of diminutive fantasia of strangeness. Another house in Henson Street always puts on one of those outre, extravagant displays of Christmas lights, that people from miles around come in their cars to look at. Who lives there? I have no idea. Ditto for the topiary house. Never seen anyone outside clipping or, more likely, shaving with one of those annoying little hand-held machine tools. The guy who owns the next door building here spends hours shaving his cypresses with one, but not into any identifiable shape that I can see. Every time I cross or, more rarely, walk down Henson Street, I think of the Melbourne artist, Bill Henson. Not for any particular reason, it's just the coincidence of names that brings him to mind. I went to the 2005 retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW. I already knew his work, where from, I cannot say. I don't remember the show very well. Some of them were large nocturnal landscapes, with burnt areas that had, I think, the charred margins edged with gold paint. Some of them had a Dantesque feel, as if we were in one of the circles of hell. Cars. Dark trees. Country roads. That white flooding light that has a forensic feel, as if a crime scene were being exposed. I think there might have been some portraits of faces in the street as well, that were revelatory of the grotesque among the ordinary. The grim aspect of daily lives in antipodean cities. Then there were the portraits of boys and girls, about which there is now so much controversy. I admit to feeling troubled by them. No amount of sophisticated rationalisation can obscure the fact that you are looking at highly sexualised images of young adolescents. That's what they are, although it's not all that they are. Many of them share the sense that the nocturnes have, that you are happening upon a moment of crisis in an ongoing drama, from which the prior and subsequent scenes, with their potential to uncover some kind of narrative, have been erased. The way these images are lit is stunning. You think of Caravaggio, those deep blacks out of which an episode from a vivid, ultimately inscrutable, drama emerges. The gold rimmed skin of boy or girl, the glistening promise of their flesh, the equivocal zone between childhood and maturity that, as the artist has said, they inhabit at once so easily and uneasily. How do you look at them? That frisson of a glimpse of the forbidden - how is that to be seen? He has also said he cannot be held responsible for the uses to which people might put his images. Cannot police them perhaps. The ABC re-played a documentary, made a few years ago, the other night. I wasn't able to watch it but I did look at the promos. Two things struck me: one was the artist, in interview, saying why he was so drawn towards these young models. He made the remark paraphrased above, about that equivocal zone, and then said he found it ... interesting. This was the word he used, but the slight hesitation before he said it made me wonder if he might have more truthfully said fascinating, compelling, even addictive. The other thing was a glimpse of him at work in his Melbourne studio. Someone told me that it is a vast space on the verge of an industrial wasteland, with a vista perhaps over a part of the ruined shore of Port Phillip Bay. He was climbing a ladder to adjust an arc light, a great silver bowl with an incandescent lamp burning at its heart. We did not see what was being illuminated by what seemed a suddenly pitiless beam: forensic, yes, and excoriating, perhaps even with the power to light up the insides of bodies, to go right down to the bone. That's about as far as I can get down Henson Street at the moment. Beyond this: it's lamentable how public debate of these matters so quickly turns into mindless stoush, the kind of conflict that may have been best summed up in that Frankie Goes To Hollywood video for their hit song Two Tribes. A slugfest where nuance is the first casualty. There's something deeply disturbing about police going into art galleries and confiscating exhibits. There's something just as disturbing about the way many of those who are defending the artist against this outrageous censorship feel they must at the same time secure his work against all accusations of disturbing content. For there is, undoubtedly, something troubling, and perhaps also troubled, about Bill Henson's work. I think that might be the point.



Orion does a one-handed handstand over the spire of St Andrews. Balancing precariously on Bellatrix. Or is it Saiph? The maps are all the wrong way round. Every night, later and later, and how come I'm here to see it? Not every night. Feel better calling it Te Waka o Tainui. But I live here. Where too it is seen as a canoe. Julpan. Makes more sense. Two blokes in Arnhemland, brothers, went fishing and caught one they weren't allowed - up their boat went into the sky, a lesson to us all. Now I'm thinking of Noe's waka snagged on the steeple of Ararat. When Joseph Banks went climbing on Tahiti-nui, 1769, he wondered if the Great South Land had somehow submerged and that the peak he was on was a remnant. He may have been wiser than he knew. We used to call it the pot. And that's still what I think. First constellation I ever saw, or remember seeing. Out on the broken asphalt of the old tennis court at the Burns Street house. Held up my father's arms probably, after we got out of the car. Whispering star, at once a hushed intake and an outgiving of breath. Amazed to see it, and to see it yet - but how could it be otherwise? The self-centredness of the child, rocking along the continuum of spacetime. The self-centredness of the universe. Anyway, the pot. Boiling up dark matter in its silver pan. If you enter the magnification of telescopes, you discover unimaginable fires, dust clouds, births of suns, the whole violent panoply of creation. You imagine the unimaginable. And you can. Every night. Then say the names: Rigel. Betelgeuse. Bellatrix and Saiph. Alnitak, Mintaka and Alnilam: they're the belt. Don't know what the stars of the sword are called. The Shepherd of Anu, Sumerians said, they saw a crook in there somewhere. Uru-anna, the light of heaven: that's where the word came from. I see a pot. Then a boat. Then ... a dancing man, or acrobat, pirouetting around a steeple. Later and later.


kaka, kea, kakariki, kakapo

I get most of my books in second hand shops. Not sure why I prefer this kind of buying - perhaps it's the vertigo that a well-stocked shop full of brand new titles induces; maybe just because I'm cheap; or it could be that amongst the already-read you find things you've not only never heard of, but never imagined. Course, the ratio of misses to hits is fairly high but, on reflection, no higher than among the never-before-read. And you can always afford to take a punt. I went up to Newcastle last weekend with a book in my bag that is one of the best novels I've read. The Bird Artist, by Howard Norman, published in this edition by Faber and Faber in 1994. (If you go here you'll find a brief account of both the man and the circumstance out of which he wrote the book.) Two fifty it says on the flyleaf, but I can't recall if it came from St Vinnies or Anglicare. No matter. I was thinking about Bellingshausen's parrots on the way up, the story as told by Alan Moorehead in the Appendix to The Fatal Impact ($2.00, Vinnies, a hardback Reprint Society edition from 1966). The Russian explorer - well, actually, he was a Baltic German from one of the Estonian islands, but the expedition itself was Russian - paused to refit at Port Jackson in 1820 on his way back from the Pacific Islands. He and his crew became enamoured of Australian birdlife and when they left Sydney took with them on the Vostok and the Mirnyi 84 birds, including cockatoos, parrots, doves, a lory and a parakeet, along with a small kangaroo that was allowed to hop around the deck.

The astonishing thing about this event is that Bellingshausen was heading south, to resume the circumnavigation of Antarctica that he had broken off during the southern winter. The navigators seemed surprised when, at higher latitudes, the birds declined to sing. And that, even though they were kept in cages below decks, nevertheless began to die. One, a black cockatoo - whether red-tailed or yellow-tailed I do not know - collapsed after eating a stuffed kookaburra. On Macquarie Island, so early, fur seals had already been exterminated and the sealers were killing sea-elephants; whether, as in some other places, they were rendering them down using live penguins as fuel, is not recorded; but Bellingshausen was one of the last to see alive the parrot indigenous to the island, which the sealers were eating, along with albatross eggs.

In 1821, the circumnavigation complete and the southern continent observed, perhaps for the very first time, the two ships turned for home; as they sailed into warmer waters off the Atlantic coast of South America the surviving birds were brought up on deck after three and a half months below and at once burst into song. One parrot escaped and climbed into the rigging. A sailor was sent aloft to recapture it but it flew away and then tried to settle on, or fell into, the water ahead of the ship. A pole was thrust out towards it and the bird managed to grasp it, holding on so tightly it did not let go for hours. I do not know what happened to these birds after the voyage was over; but when, in the excellent Indigo bookshop in Newcastle I came across Parrot, by Paul Carter ($10.00, Reaktion Books, 2006), I hoped that it might tell me. Carter doesn't rehearse this story however, although he tells fragments of many others; and the illustrations (101, 77 in colour) in his small paperback are superb. One thing he says interests me particularly. Three New Zealand parrots, the kaka, the kea and the kakapo, are thought to be the most ancient species of the bird in the world: ur-parrots. I've never seen the latter two birds but, one lunch time, Jill Jones told me an enthralling account of her meeting with some kea on the slopes of the Southern Alps.

At the same shop I also picked up a copy of a recent life of William Dampier, A Pirate of Exquisite Mind by Diana and Michael Preston ($9.00, Doubleday, 2004). I had this book out of the Sydney Public Library last month and did not wish to take it back. The title comes from a remark S. T. Coleridge made about the Old Pyrating Dog. I'm not sure if it is in this biography or another that I came across the information that on one his voyages, his last, on the Duchess, Dampier carried a one legged cook by the name of John Silver. With or without a parrot on his shoulder.

The four NZ parrots illustrated are in the order given in the title; the third is of a kind of parakeet that still lives on some sub-antarctic islands, thought to be related to the extinct Macquarie Island variety.


There is another shoe, single this time, outside the medical centre. Alone, on the small ledge below the big window that looks up Lackey Street towards the railway station, round the corner from the entrance. A woman's shoe, high-heeled, a bit clunky, in brown suede with small diamante inlays picking out a pattern around the instep and along the toe. Italian, perhaps. When I first saw it, the other day, it was standing upright but now it's fallen over. The heel, which is thick as well as high, makes it unlikely that whoever left it there could have walked away on the other one. Or only with a most peculiar gait. Hopping. Or on crutches. It does not look much worn and yet its dancing days are surely over.


a rude awakening

Some nights it is as if I do not so much sleep as dream I am sleeping: like being adrift on a lake of dark water, which is a lake of dreams, into which sometimes I can sink and sometimes not. Often I know I am dreaming, which is not to say that I am lucid dreaming: the flow of images is involuntary as ever, but I seem to have some awareness of the nature of the flow, even if I cannot control it. Occasionally, too, I feel as if delayed at some interface between thinking and dreaming, only halfway through the elastic meniscus of that dark lake water. It's not necessarily unpleasant, it can even be quite illuminating. Writing problems might find sudden solutions, or new directions, in the watery transparent lens of that meniscus. Last night was like that, lord knows why; but in the middle of that broken image stream a rude awakening came. I heard a voice cry inarticulately out and, in the dream, wondered if I had really heard it or if it was just some ghostly intrusion on the reverie (which I do not otherwise remember). Anyway. The next thing I heard was the sound of someone pissing, quite loudly, nearby. And then I thought (in the dream): this is no dream! And woke up. And someone was indeed pissing, loudly, down beneath my bedroom window - I live on the top floor of a two storey building. Not just that, he was talking on his mobile phone. I heard him say: She wanted to fuck in the taxi! Can you believe that, mate? Then laughed. In a Bristol accent, so I knew it was my next door neighbour. He's a young bloke, harmless, quite pleasant really; lives there with his girlfriend who I think may be Thai. She's nice enough too, though both of them, as young people do, don't really notice an old bloke like me. Anyway. I heard him zip up, cut the connection (possibly the other way round) then leap the stairs to their apartment. Rat-tat-tat ... on the door; then silence. This young couple often go out on a Friday or a Saturday night and come home quite late. Dancing, clubbing, whatever. A bit drunk perhaps. I don't care; they're otherwise benign, as I say, and the woman who lived there before went out of her way to make everybody's life a misery, especially mine - she'd hammer on the door if I played my stereo, got her lawyer to send me threatening letters, even called the cops on me once. As long as these two don't mind my music, or my kids kicking up a racket, I'm happy to let them do whatever they like. But this incident intrigued me: why didn't he wait until he went inside to pee? Was it so he could call his mate and tell him that fascinating bit of information? Was the she in the taxi the woman upstairs or another? Who knows? By the time I'd rattled through these possibilities, the way back to the dreamy dark waters was lost for the moment; so I flicked on the light, checked the time (3.30 am), made a cup of chamomile tea and read for a bit while I drank it ... later slipping slowly back into quasi-insensibility. Wondering ... is it true that my grandfather painted railway stations (the real thing, not pictures of them)? Any of the ones that I've stood and waited at? Was it his mother or his grandmother who had second sight? And, in either case, was it thus he who carried the schizophrenic gene, if indeed there is such a thing? Did he really believe every word of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion that my mother said he owned and read? Why didn't she go to his funeral? This gentle, unassuming man, with his passion for compost and for Douglas Social Credit? How is it that, every time I go back to her autobiography looking for answers, all I end up with is more questions? And then for some reason, just before I sank into true insensibility, I remembered the floor of the house at Pukapuka Road ... and drifted uneasily off into depthless black and suddenly perilous waters.