tiptoe through the scientists

Have just finished reading a book called The Elephant's Secret Sense by Caitlin O'Connell, an American scientist who came from a background of inquiry into seismic communication - in her case, the love songs of Hawaiian plant-hoppers. Many species of animal, it turns out, get in touch with each other by striking the ground or otherwise seismically. Fish amphibians lizards snakes crocodiles. Blind mole rats, the kangaroo rat, golden moles. Elephant seals too. Apache Indians would hold the hairs on the backs of their fingers up to the windows of their enemies' houses in order to feel the pressure waves from their heartbeats. All primates have specially adapted receptors in the hands, feet, lips and other places with the ability to detect vibrations. Elephants do it through their feet, particularly the forward tips. They have the ability to close their ears in order to mask sounds from the air so that the vibrations from the ground can travel up into their earbones. I had not realised before that our three bones of the middle ear, along with fur and mammary glands, are a defining characteristic of mammals. Elephants, like blue whales, have a huge cochlea. They have other attributes of marine animals, like so-called acoustic fat in their footpads, naval cavities and cheeks. Acoustic fat is good for transmitting vibrations. Close relatives of elephants include manatees, dugongs, the hyrax and the golden mole of the Namib Desert. Asian elephants, the genus Elphas, used to live in Africa alongside Loxodonta, the African variety. Until about 35,000 years ago. Namibia is where Caitlin did most of her research. She was seeking practical solutions to the problem of crop-stealing by elephants, which crash into subsistence farmers' gardens and eat the corn, as well as pursuing a more generalised and theoretical interest in communication per se. She loves her elephants and, despite a sometimes clumsy prose style, has written a good book. Some of its detail will remain with me: The animal poacher who had a big Panda sticker from the World Wildlife Fund on the gate of his compound. The poacher's brother, with his trunk full of dried human testicles to sell to witch doctors. He would sally forth every time he heard there had been a murder or a fight. Or he would send assistants out to get some. The ivory smuggling doctor. And her vivid descriptions of elephant behaviour in the wild - the Namibian herds she studied are the last truly migratory elephants left on earth. And yet scientists are weird. They fly around in small planes chasing the matriarchs of family groups so they can shoot them with tranquilliser darts and then attach radio transmitters to them while they are unconscious. Night after night they broadcast a recording of an alarm call made by a matriarch when lions threatened the babies of her group and observe how the elephants respond to this desperate warning. One young elephant called Miss Ellie became so upset she bit the ground, an action that is seen in the wild only under extreme agitation. Perhaps I'm missing something but the seemingly uncritical acceptance of the notion that the end justifies the means startles me. Also the apparent lack of awareness of the effect constant human intervention must have upon these wild animals. I guess you wouldn't do this kind of thing if you couldn't overcome certain scruples. But still. I enjoyed her book and admire her courage and her passion ... and how about this: if an elephant is calm it walks on its heels but if it is alarmed or nervous and feels the need for stealth, it tiptoes.


I was in time for the rehearsal and easily found the venue, even though its designation—the Masonic Hall—appeared nowhere on the small, much altered brick building, which seemed rather an outpost of the nearby Anglican Church. There were Gaelic names everywhere but the town was called after an Aboriginal word meaning either thinly wooded hills or clear sky. It was under the one that I sat on a long wooden bench and looked over the disused playing field and across the railway line to the other. Long grass around the basketball court behind and also on the football field in the gully below. The late morning air soft and golden and still. Eastern rosellas grazing on seedheads. A magpie with rain in its throat carolling in the stunted pines. Someone at one or other of the blank windows must have been watching but what would they see? I ate my roll, I smoked a cigarette. There was something about it that reminded me of the Rec in Greytown where I played my first games of football with a future All Black running interference to my dreams. I always thought Wreck but actually it was short for Recreation Ground. Those only partially incorporated spaces in small country towns that you wander in perfect freedom when the world was bigger than now. So much at peace until I realised I had the details wrong and should have been somewhere else. Down the other end of town. No matter ... much later, the reading over, dinner over, the party in the marquee dissolving into song, I left the tent and went to sit in the grandstand at the west of the oval. I saw the singer in her high heels teeter towards the loo in the break between sets. Girls like fillies galloping out into the field. The phantom horses and their riders from the rodeo two weeks away brief against the rural dark and then I thought, as briefly, it might have been Raetihi. Later again, the volcanic plumbing exploded in the Royal Hotel and I heard some rural stock buyer or sojourning truck salesman clearing his passages in the 4 am half dark. Looking up at one of those high blank ceilings that make you wonder if this is the room to which death will come. And may have already for another. In the morning mist rolled between the trees turning everything to dripping grief or else a cover under which survivors of the night's misadventures might escape into the hills. I drove north through town and over the heritage bridge then turned the car around and, leaving behind the whispering enticements of that unknown country, headed down towards the flatlands.


... the names it has blown ...

When I was fifteen or sixteen and living in Huntly, I went one night down to the local disco and heard a three piece Maori band from Auckland play ... Purple Haze. In an intoxicating wash of magenta light. The rumour that Jimi Hendrix was, like they say really, a Maori from New Zealand, is still current in some parts. A Ngai-te-Rangi from the Bay of Plenty perhaps. Not long afterwards I heard on the radio the first Bob Dylan song I remember - Hendrix doing All Along the Watchtower. I still love the radio, for the way you hear on it things you'd never otherwise encounter. Not so very long ago, on 2SER, I came across the thrilling voice of Cassandra Wilson. She was singing The Band song, The Weight. I pulled into Nazareth / I was feeling about half past dead ... Nazareth is a small town in the Lehigh Valley region of Pennsylvania. Been listening to her a lot lately. On one of her records, she covers a Hendrix song. Not an easy thing to do. I remember this one from the radio in the sixties as well. Is there a better lyric evoking the night time desolation of streets in a big city ...

After all the jacks are in their boxes
And the clowns have all gone to bed
You can hear happiness staggering on down the street
Footsteps dressed in red ...

A broom is drearily sweeping
Up the broken pieces of yesterday's life
Somewhere a queen is weeping
Somewhere a king has no wife ...

The traffic lights turn blue tomorrow
And shine their emptiness down on my bed
The tiny island sags down stream
Because the life that it lived is dead ...

Will the wind ever remember
The names it has blown in the past?
And with its crutch, its old age, and its wisdom
It whispers no, this will be the last ...

That's the words without the refrain, which is so well known it probably doesn't need repeating. Hendrix is said to have written the song in London when his girlfriend ran out into the streets one night after a fight. A band member said the riff came from Curtis Mayfield, and that Jimi had been obsessing over it for years ... Cassandra Wilson's version, like many of her covers, opens the song out so it sounds like a raga that she riffs along in front of with that fabulous voice. She has a new cd, called Loverly, but I haven't heard it yet. Recorded in a rented house in Jackson, Mississippi, her home town, it includes a version of Wouldn't It Be Loverly from My Fair Lady. The album of songs from that show, with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews (and Stanley Holloway), was one of the very few long playing records we had in our house when I was growing up. I know the whole thing by heart. In those days, I thought Pygmalion was about a diminutive feral cat.


OTS aka TWA aka TLA

Last night my friends the Maroubrans asked me to join a monthly comp they're instituting. To be called OTS perhaps, the prize goes, by mutual agreement, to the best street find during the month in question. Or it might be called Freegans. If that's the word. Anyway the streets are a perpetual harvest and a moveable feast if you want to look at them that way. And so on the way to the laundry this morning, on a small old-fashioned low red-painted concrete ledge that runs along the frontage of Smith Street Motor Repairs, there were two books. My heart leapt up. As you can imagine: the first one was W G Sebald's Austerlitz, which I have read and even bought a copy of once, but didn't until today own. What happened was, we took a friend's copy away on a holiday to Seal Rocks, it rained, the tent flooded, Austerlitz was inside, it blew up to twice its normal size and then turned to smeary brown pulp. So I had to buy Peter another copy, even though he demurred and said he probably wouldn't read it again. Bet he will though. The other book was The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. I haven't read this, nor any other work by her - but I'm intrigued. So far as I can tell, it's a novel, but there are bona fide photographs of real people between pages 177 and 178, as if the fictional characters in the family chronicle that the book is have, or had, real existences in the world. Also in this copy, at the back, on the very last page, is a list written with a black felt tip pen. I didn't discover this until after I brought the books home and had I seen it at the time, might have left them there. It reads:

- clean
- vacuum
- ring real estate
- return library DVD's
- collect shirts
- dinner

Well I think it's bibs, it might be bits; mysterious either way.

BTW TWA stands for three word acronym and to decode TLA you substitute letter for word. They are also possible alternate titles for the comp. OTS is on the street.


Springfield Lodge

I've lived in Australia almost half my life - tho' it seems shorter than that, because it's the second half, and the first was much longer. Anyway, I always mark the anniversary of my arrival here in some way or other. This year, on the actual day, I was in Newcastle wittering on about the muses (never thought that would happen) but today, a few weeks later, I found myself up at Kings Cross, sitting on a bench in the early afternoon sun, eating sushi and looking at a Thames & Hudson book of Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly paintings ... right outside the hotel I first stayed at way back when. Various toothless or otherwise subtracted locals passed or paused, making their accommodations with fate and/or addiction. Amongst the smart people, who clip by fast and don't stop. And the workers lounging ironically around in their Blundstones and shorts and fluorescent yellow-green safety vests. A classy looking hooker was standing outside the ice cream parlour. We almost smiled at each other. The Manzil Room is long gone and I couldn't work out if the allegedly legendary nightclub Baron's (it did exist, I've been) has been demolished yet or not but the Piccolo Bar is still there. It felt ... familiar. Like it hasn't really changed that much, or not in essence. I was happy. As if I was home, even though I wasn't. No regrets. The sushi was good too.


The Elephant's Memory Revisited

Recently a friend forwarded to me a quote by Umberto Eco on his reading habits: If they are different than me, he said, I hate them, and if they are like me, I hate them. It reminded me of what Nora Barnacle said when, after his death, she was asked what her husband, James Joyce, read. He mostly read himself, she said. There's a glimpse of this in the Brenda Maddox biography Nora, in which Nora remembers lying in bed and hearing Jim in the next room, chuckling over the manuscript of Finnegans Wake. If you write, you do have to spend a lot of time reading yourself, if only to free yourself, by publication, of what you have written ... and even then you might find yourself going back to recall what it was you did put down. I had this experience yesterday, picking up Waimarino County, just to see how it read. I got as far as page 8 before the first shock of embarrassment and shame. It was this passage: Next morning we went up the mountain. To get there you have to pass the elephant's grave. The ghost of Rajah stands gate-keeper to that entrance to the Tongariro National Park. He came with Wirth's Bros. circus back in the 1950s and remains because he ate tutu berries in autumn when they are poisonous to animals ... almost every 'fact' in the last two of those four sentences is wrong. The elephant was called Mollie, not Rajah (circus historian John Sullivan told me Rajah was a name given only to lions); obviously, Mollie was a she not a he; the circus was Bullen's, not Wirth's; it was probably tutu foliage, not berries, that Mollie ate; and tutu is poisonous over the summer months rather than in autumn. The version in the book is the one I grew up with, imperfectly remembered in the family; it took quite a lot of research, most of it not done by me, to establish the real story, which could itself make the subject of a book that, who knows, one day may be written. Meanwhile ... what to do? If it was a blog post I would just go in and alter it but you can't do that with books. I could annotate my own copy, if I didn't have a superstitious horror of inscribing printed pages in my execrable hand. And that wouldn't change the fact that the erroneous version is the one that all other readers of the book are left with. It seems to be without remedy for the moment, unless this post is a remedy. That first paragraph on page 8 concludes: I remember as child going to look at the mound of dirt; perched on top was a tiny bunch of flowers, bittersweet, so funny, so sad. This memory, which is still vivid in mind, may also be false. Newspaper reports of the event mention that a white cross, not a bunch of flowers, was placed on the grave mound, apparently by a circus clown. How can you erase a false memory? If I ever return to the subject, all I can do is put the two versions, the memory and the newspaper report, side by side ... and yet I doubt that anything will shift my five year old self's quite possibly delusive image of a faded, wilting bunch of flowers on top of a huge mound of yellow-brown earth there on the other side of the railway tracks in Brailey's Bush at Ohakune Junction.


Genre Confusion

Learned yesterday that my 2007 book of essays, Waimarino County (& other excursions), has been shortlisted for the 2008 Montana NZ Book Awards - in the Biography category. While delighted at the recognition and proud of the book itself, I'm also confused - in what sense is it a biography? Who is it a biography of? There are a few pieces in there that could be described as (auto)biographical essays, but most of the book doesn't focus upon particular lives, not even my own. Where other lives do enter into it - Alan Brunton's, Ern Malley's, Ronald Hugh Morrieson's - the inquiry is focussed not so much on their biographies as their works. The other two shortlisted books are Ray Fargher's book on Donald McLean and Judy Siers' on architect James Walter Chapman-Taylor - both, by the look of them, bona fide biographies in the classic sense. I've very happy to be in this company however, especially since Ray Fargher was a mate of my father's and came to our house sometimes when I was still living at home in the 1960s. I hope he wins it ... if I don't, which I probably won't. Or I hope Judy Siers does. Trying to imagine Waimarino County as a biography is a bit like seeing Saturn from the other side, as in this image, which views the planet and its rings from a POV unavailable to us here on earth but clear enough to our probe, Cassini. It looks the same, only different, like a photographic negative perhaps:



Go here for key to map


Based on a True Story is the title of a 2005 album recorded by 7 piece dub/reggae band Fat Freddy’s Drop in their own studio in Wellington, New Zealand. The elegant irony of that title is repeated in the CD’s liner notes, where the band members are named alongside their aliases—or should that be the other way round? The 'drop' of the band name is similarly ambivalent. I’ve heard many suggestions, from some kind of psychedelic elixir to those country dunnies still known as long drops. Of course it's probably just homebrew. The art work of that 2005 album is elaborated around a picture of an octopus, most likely the grand mythological beast Te Wheke-a-Muturangi, who lived, and perhaps died at the hands of Kupe, in Cook Strait at the time of the early Polynesian navigators. Although there are some who maintain that the rush of tidal waters through the Strait means Te Wheke lurks there still. So what’s the true story? Who knows? When did movies start using that particular form of enticement on their posters? What’s it got to do with the current, and somehow wearying, debate over the border between fiction and non-fiction? Couple of weeks ago I went to a conference that focused upon the many varieties that now exist of what’s being called, increasingly, Creative Non-Fiction. Though Literary Non-Fiction is preferred in some circles. It was a good weekend, I enjoyed both curricular and extra-curricular activities there in Newcastle. One or two things bothered me—that there is already an academic industry dealing with this ‘new’ genre; that some, not all, academic prose is now repositioning itself as ‘creative’ while exhibiting the old defects of that form along with the more risible aspects of the 'creative'. I can remember, in the vernacular of my youth, that to get a bit creative with the truth used to mean lying; now it can be a serious endeavour with a doctorate at the end of it. Nothing wrong with that, or not in principle. But I wonder … of the five non-fiction books I’ve published, the first two are straight up documentary, at least in my own mind; the second two introduce fictional elements into the narrative, the first, minimally, guiltily, and clandestinely, the other flagrantly or at least it’s meant to be flagrant—one reviewer, an academic from Dubai who’s specialty is Albert Camus, angrily accused me of attempting to write a novel by stealth. The fifth’s a book of essays so I guess the question doesn’t arise there. As everyone who pays attention to these matters knows, the fiction / non-fiction border is patrolled by thought police these days, who periodically haul some malefactor into the light of day and snap them in the pillory so we can all throw our rotten guilts in their faces. That’s become a wearisome process too I think. As with so much else, the primal scene of literary forgery is very old and found among early Greek writings. Herodotus tells it thus: Onomacritus had been expelled from Athens by Pisastratus for inserting in the verses of Musaeus a prophecy that the islands off Lemnos would disappear under water—Lasus of Hermione caught him in the very act of this forgery. Onomacritus is described as a collector of oracles; Musaeus was one of the shadowy poets who can be glimpsed around the equally shadowy form of the Ur-poet, Orpheus. Some say he was Orpheus’ son and most accounts agree that he was a prophet. To re-write the prophecies of a prophet was thus Onomacritus’ crime—but he was himself a writer, as well as a collector, of oracles, and was said during his exile in Susa to have been partly responsible, by selective quotation of oracles, for persuading Xerxes to undertake the invasion of Greece. Onomacritus was also involved, some say, in the writing down of the first 'official' texts of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; perhaps, one writer suggests, although he doubts it in the next breath, he ‘forged’ the Iliad and the Odyssey out of legendary or other material. Later, the tyrant Solon, himself a poet, is said to have inserted a line in the Iliad’s catalogue of ships in order to reinforce Athen’s claim to Salamis. I think it’s clear from these few brief examples, all over two and half thousand years old, that the legitimacy of written texts as a source of truth is always questionable. And that authenticity can always be traded for short-term efficacy. So how are we to know what’s what? How negotiate these murky, octopus-haunted waters? It probably sounds flippant, but I still think you can go by feel, the way musicians do. Here’s something Tom Waits said recently in an interview: Mostly I straddle reality and the imagination. My reality needs imagination like a bulb needs a socket. My imagination needs reality like a blind man needs a cane. And then, I guess, he wandered off humming that song he wrote with Keith Richard: Well there's one thing you can't lose / It's that feel / Your pants, your shirt, your shoes / But not that feel ...


In the mid 1970s, in Wellington, I used to do a bit of arts journalism. There was a magazine that went out to secondary schools, published by maverick Alister Taylor. Can't remember what it was called. I did a few things for it, one was a commission to interview two kids from New Plymouth who'd won art prizes. Their names were Andrew Davie and Richard Penny and they came down to the big smoke for the interview, which I duly wrote up and the mag published. They were, like, 18, and I was 22. A few weeks later I got a phone call from Andrew in New Plymouth. He'd won a radio competition; the prize was dinner with Bo Diddley; would I like to come along? It was in the dining room on the first floor of the Waterloo Hotel opposite the Wellington Railway Station. Bo had an entourage - some of his band, some of his minders. So far as I recall, everyone was black apart from me and Andrew. The food was awful - NZ pub cuisine of the era, tough meat, limp vegetables, some kind of gravy. Fruit and custard afterwards. Maybe they were drinking beer but we weren't. Bo was very grand. He barely spoke to us - what was there to say to two spotty awestruck white boys? - and I remember realising that he was probably disappointed that we weren't girls. I asked him what he thought of Hendrix and he waved the query away with a kind of magnificent indifference. Jimi was cool, he said. He could play guitar real well. Later on we went to the concert. The square white guitar, the sweat pouring down, that beat, that beat ... his signature tune: Got a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind / I'm just twenty-two and don't mind dying / Now come on baby take a walk with me and tell me / Who do you love? He wrote that song in 1956. His given name was Ellas McDaniel. When he died, he'd just been back to his home town of McComb, Mississippi. He was a lordly man.