syncope as a way of being

When I was a kid I was susceptible to faints, spontaneously, usually as a result of stress, trauma, over-excitement or something similar. Once, on Christmas Day, I fainted in the Anglican church in Martinborough and had to be carried outside by my father and laid under a tree. All I'd had to eat so far that day was a single plum. Even as an adult, this sometimes happened to me - I remember slicing open one of my fingers with a Stanley knife while making a bamboo aeroplane that was to be a prop for a Red Mole show, telling no-one, going downstairs, washing and binding up the wound, then going back upstairs - there was a house full of people - and fainting in the kitchen. There's other occasions too but what I'm thinking about now is the strangeness of the world as it appears just before, and just after, such episodes. Sound changes, slowing down and become both distant and yet very loud. If people are speaking, you hear their words break up into phonemes that are rapidly leached of sense. Visually the effects are as alarming: it begins to look as if the world is in the process of disintegrating, like the words, into constituent parts that have no inherent meaning, sense or even structure. It is like a trompe d'oeil curtain being pulled back, but what's behind isn't anything at all. Certainly not blackness - if pushed, I'd say white, the white glare of nothingness. I imagine that all these effects can be explained as the architecture of perception, your point of view, crumpling as unconsciousness advances. When you wake up afterwards, this process is presumably reversed, but what I remember most is the intense, almost repellent, physicality of the things of the world intruding upon that blessed blank state: faces, even loved, familiar faces, look grossly swollen with blood and tissue and pierced with hairs; textures of wood or stone are brutally hard; sounds too are transgressive, unbearably loud; and so on. There is a sense of fraudulence about the returning world: how, since it has shown itself to be an illusion, can it insist so importunately upon its physical reality? I don't think, since that first childhood faint, I've ever entirely believed the construction of the world that my senses bring to me. Of course drug experiences in my late teens, early twenties and intermittently thereafter have only reinforced this Berkeleyan skepticism. I don't faint much any more but quite often - like just now, or rather a few moments ago - I get what can only be called a feeling of imminence, as if the painted veil is about to slip once more and I am going to fall, not unwillingly, again into that white glare.




Are you a mystical person?


Any thoughts about why?

I think it’s the land. The streams, the forests, the vast emptiness. The land created me. I’m wild and lonesome. Even as I travel the cities, I‘m more at home in the vacant lots. But I have a love for humankind, a love of truth, and a love of justice. I think I have a dualistic nature. I’m more of an adventurous type than a relationship type.


Do you think of yourself as a cult figure?

A cult figure, that’s got religious connotations. It sounds cliquish and clannish. People have different emotional levels. Especially when you’re young. Back then I guess most of my influences could be thought of as eccentric. Mass media had no overwhelming reach so I was drawn to the traveling performers passing through. The side show performers - bluegrass singers, the black cowboy with chaps and a lariat doing rope tricks. Miss Europe, Quasimodo, the Bearded Lady, the half-man half-woman, the deformed and the bent, Atlas the Dwarf, the fire-eaters, the teachers and preachers, the blues singers. I remember it like it was yesterday. I got close to some of these people. I learned about dignity from them. Freedom too. Civil rights, human rights. How to stay within yourself. Most others were into the rides like the tilt-a-whirl and the rollercoaster. To me that was the nightmare. All the giddiness. The artificiality of it. The sledge hammer of life. It didn’t make sense or seem real. The stuff off the main road was where force of reality was. At least it struck me that way. When I left home those feelings didn’t change.

together through life


... out of the frying pan ...

Course it's easy to romanticize the camping life ... all that unmediated experience of what Europeans sometimes called The Nature. With three kids and two adults it's often more like perpetual housework in the open. While your inadvertent neighbours do theirs in the same open. We ended up quite close to a family of four. They were from Ingleburn and so perhaps connected to the military ... their gear was state of the art and brand new. He was a Pom, don't know what she was. One of their kids, the girl, Charlotte, 18 months old, spent all her time in a fold-out playpen in the screened kitchen tent. We only heard her in the half hour scream that signalled dinner-then-sleep at end of day. Never really saw her at all. The boy, Thomas, was about 7 and he was a dutiful kid with pyromaniacal tendencies who spent every hour and minute that he could at the fire. He was nice enough but drove me crazy in the end: all he wanted to do was feed the flames but was unable to do so without asking permission to immolate every leaf, every twig, each banksia cone ... one night, might have been the first, just as Charlotte's screams were winding down to sleepy oblivion another child started up, as if in dysfunctional stereo. Another family of four had come to park their camper van on our other side and this was their 18 month old son. Jakob, I think. He was different because he screamed more or less all the time. Sometimes the older boy, name unknown, about 6, joined in; but not often. They were German, from far to the south, near the Swiss border. He, Dad, didn't have much English and spent his down time reading with fierce concentration. She had worked for a year at ANU in Canberra and was fluent. We thought Jakob must have been teething but when Dad was asked about it he said: Yes, teething ... always the teething. Later she confirmed: He's always like that, she said. With a shrug and a look of sad resignation. In fact it seemed that the miserable child was so inconsolable that they had simply given up attending to his cries of distress. He stomped around falling over and crying and picking himself up again. Tipping head first off chairs and burning himself on hot mugs. One morning, perhaps attracted by the smell, both kids ended up over with us. It was early and I was cooking pancakes with bacon. I gave the older boy a pancake, which he carried away to eat. Then Jakob came up. He was hungry too so I fed him - not much, just morsels, but he kept coming back for more. It was good because there was no crying then. Later he put a few little bits and pieces on the fire. But his brother was sent for him and the screaming resumed. We went away after that, kayaking perhaps, I don't recall. When we returned the Germans had gone. But on the ground next to the cooking area there was a frying pan. It must have been in recompense for - something. The fire? The bits of food? The desultory conversation about where they might go next that was good for children? It seemed a strange and mysterious gift: we already had two frying pans, and only one element on the gas stove. And wouldn't they have needed it? Anyway, it's efficient, light, with a no-stick membrane and a firm handle. I used it last night to make a curry. And, now, naturally, I will never cook in it without thinking of sad Germans and poor Jakob's endless wailing.


Legge's Camp revisited

Returned last Sunday from a camping holiday at Myall Lakes during which, by strange coincidence (I had not chosen the venue nor made the bookings) I found myself back in the very place where I first encountered the Australian bush more than twenty-five years ago. Was troubled by reminiscences from the moment we arrived there but did not fully make the connection until I saw an old sign hammered up above the door in the new restaurant / bar: Legge's Camp, it said. Was last there in 1982 or 3 when, following a very stressful period, I went away for a few days. At that time I lived in Chippendale, as it was then called, now better known as Darlington. My stubborn refusal to cease growing marijuana, and the discovery of my various schemes and plots by local Aborigine kids, led to a series of incidents that culminated with the glass panel on the back door being smashed in with a brick one dark night. I confronted the perp, a man of about my own age called George, out in the yard. He'd dropped his brick but I still clutched the axe I knew I would never have used. Later, after he'd gone, I inadvertently stepped into a fresh human turd he or one of his mates had left on the back lawn. Moved out of there soon after but I can't recall now if that was before or after the trip to Myall Lakes. In those days Legge's Camp was a rundown caravan park with one or two dilapidated wooden cabins standing under the paperbark trees on a narrow point between a swamp and a lake. Power boats with water skiers behind crossed and re-crossed the shallow waters, their propeller screws severed fronds of the weed that grew on the sandy bottom, the weed washed ashore and, as it rotted, gave off the precise odour of the human shit I had scraped off my bare feet just a few days before. One day I set off to swim across the channel to the eastern shore of the lake, intending to walk through the bush there to the ocean. It was very hot and I was wearing nothing but my swimmers. Even more stupidly, I failed to realise I was walking north rather than east and so, while I could hear the mutter of surf, never reached the sea. The ground so hot I was soon running in my bare feet from tree shade to tree shade on the sandy path. I was probably already suffering from sun stroke when I stopped finally in a place where something unusual happened. There was a large monitor lizard, yellow-bellied, black and white striped, climbing up the pink trunk of an angophora tree. It paused and craned its neck and looked at me: and then, although I could not say how, the whole landscape—cobalt sky, bare white sandy path, prickly shrubs, raggedy gum trees, ants of several kinds, whatever else among the unseen was attending—also paused and looked. In that look there was both sympathy and rebuke and, chastened, I turned and made my sunburnt way back to the shores of the brackish lake and back across that to Legge's Camp. The place is much changed now: an Eco Resort has been built here. We crossed over by car ferry to Bombah Point and drove past the sleek grey modern resort style cabins to the camping area and pitched our two tents down by the lake side. No power boats sullied its waters, which seemed deeper and cleaner than a quarter of century ago: I could no longer imagine how I had swum to the other shore. Occasionally I caught a whiff of the rotten weed smell but it was fugitive and mild. The fire we built in front of the tents continued to burn for the whole time we were there, attaining a certain grandeur on the nights we banked it up and sat around it eating or drinking or telling ghost stories under the huge stars of the Milky Way. There were ducks that shared the camp site with us; every morning the resident goannas waddled through, attended by comical choughs looking for things to eat; at night the possums quarrelled among themselves but not with us. There were big silver fish jumping in the lake but all we caught was one small bream; later a local told me they would have been mullet that we heard splashing out there in the dark and to catch them you have to bait tiny hooks with balls of cotton wool soaked in fish oil or some such. When we swam in the lake the tannin saturated water turned as it deepened from yellow to orange to red while the sand beneath our feet was green with weed seedlings: as if on some exotic planet. We went kayaking on waterways that, a fellow called Stormy told us, went for fifty uninterrupted kilometres north of where we were. Many black swans sailed in pairs in and out of view along the reedy shores. Their red beaks and white underwing when with necks outstretched they fly. Every time I went down to the lake side, I looked across to where a golden shoulder of dune broke through the grey-green uniformity of the scrubby bush south of Mungo Brush. The weather was beautiful until the last day, when a wind began to blow across the lake from the south west. We packed everything up and took a cabin for the night, during which some heavy showers of rain fell. Next morning, we went back across the car ferry and drove down the isthmus until we came to a place called Dark Point. Just before the carpark, nonchalant and slow, a magnificent red dingo walked out onto the road and then turned to walk back into the bush again; we had heard them howling in the night, one of the eeriest sounds I know. At Dark Point was the giant dune we had seen from across the lake, in amongst other dunes that were pristine after the night rain. The kids ran away into the distance to climb up it and slide down it while we walked on, as if through a desert, to the sea. There was no-one on the tremendous beach, but the sand was covered in tracks: this must be one of the places the dingoes come to scavenge. When the kids arrived my sons and I went swimming in the surf in the lee of a small rocky point and then while we were drying off we all wandered up and down looking for treasure in the tide wrack. Wondering what was on the equally rocky islands off shore. Later we walked slowly back through the dunes to the car and set off south for Hawks Nest and Tea Gardens and a perfect end to the holiday. Accompanied by a satisfying sense of completion of my abortive quest all those years ago now.


radio radio

I've been doing radio interviews over the last few weeks, talking about The Supply Party. Many have been with local ABC stations in country areas of Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania but, in amongst them, there have been a couple with mainstream Sydney AM stations. One, the first, was a brief outing with George and Paul on 2UE and the latest, earlier on today, was with their rival station 2GB. They booked the interview weeks ago then bumped me for something else. My publishers kept at them however, and eventually we were offered a late night slot on Overnight with David Oldfield. Yes that David Oldfield. There was some mix-up, consequent upon the lateness of the hour or the switch to daylight savings or whatever, and I thought the interview was tonight, or rather tomorrow morning. So last night I went to bed early (I was tired) and fell thankfully into a deep sleep. Sometime after 11.00 pm the phone rang. Naturally I didn't answer it. Then my mobile, which I'd forgotten to switch off, also rang. About ten or maybe fifteen minutes later, when I'd almost managed to still the wild beating of my heart that late night phone calls induce, the same thing happened again. There was no way I'd get back to sleep easily after that. I got up to make a cup of chamomile tea and, while waiting for the kettle to boil, checked to see if this serial abuser had left a message. It was the producer of Mr. Oldfield's show. He'd made a polite inquiry: would I call him back? I called him back ... by this time it was too late for me to go on the 12.30 slot that had originally been booked, so we decided to do it after the 1.00 am news. I drank my tea, I had a bath ... by which time somnolence threatened to return. I kept myself awake spell-checking a long document I'm trying to finish. As for Mr Oldfield, what shall I say? He was, at the outset, like many a radio jock and most politicians, more interested in what he had to say than anything I might offer but as the interview proceeded gave me a bit more room and I appreciated that. He seemed inordinately interested in the deaths of Burke and Wills and the others on the expedition and at one point asked me if I'd felt like joining them? I said not at all, I wanted to live to tell the tale, whereupon he muttered darkly about the many people he'd like to see dead. The summing up question was this: what can we learn from Burke and Wills et al? I answered with an anecdote: while researching my book on Colin McCahon, I came across a couple of deros outside the Matthew Talbot Centre in Wolloomooloo who were having a discussion about the famously lost explorers. I stopped and joined in. One of them, a thin man gesturing with an equally skinny unlit roll-your-own, the type we used to call a racehorse, was overcome with incredulity at the fact that the explorers died essentially of hunger: They were in a supermarket! he said with mingled amusement and disbelief. The Aborigines couldn’t believe it! Burke had refused gifts of fish offered him because he did not trust the givers; King, who survived, took the fish. Empathy, I said to Mr Oldfield, is what we can learn from the story. A defining quality of a man like Ludwig Becker and one that Robert O'Hara Burke significantly lacked. He did not demur.


grave, mile & mill stones

The Supply Party, a dj on Southland radio helpfully told me, was published on 9.03.09 which, with the points slightly transposed, could be a palindrome. Zone of the Marvellous, a book of eight linked essays, has been accepted by AUP and, if I can get them a revised ms by the end of this month (Anzac Day?), should come out in September of this year. And I have today finished writing a book on Colin McCahon, called Dark Night: endless yet never. As yet it has no publisher but, well, who can say? I'd like simultaneous NZ and OZ publication ... don't know. It feels strange to have this triumvirate near completion, perhaps I should feel elated rather than ... rather tired. It's been eighteen months of solid writing and now the money, so generously given me to prosecute these enterprises, has almost run out. Guess I will have to do some honest work for a change. Rang my taxi boss the other day, he said, call back in early May. I will. Somehow I feel disinclined towards embarking on any other long prose excursion and, anyway, I don't have the ghost of an idea. Well, maybe a ghost ... the McCahon work above is called Truth from the King Country: load bearing structures and can be found here.


Shortly before this pic was taken, at the Clearview Winery in Hawkes Bay on the night of the 20th March, I was crossing the room to visit another table when, attempting a joyous little skip across a corner of the low stage, I caught my foot beneath its edge ... flew gracelessly into the air ... and came crashing down on my left ankle, which bent sideways beneath my weight. You can always get a laugh if you say you fell down at a winery; but a friend I told this story to later asked, presciently, did I choose pain or humiliation? Pain, I told her, without hesitation. Even while in the air I was planning how to minimise the event, how to pretend it was nothing, or not much. Many of the guests there that evening didn't know I'd hurt myself but of course, by the next day, with the ankle elephantine and a stick for support, it wasn't so easy to disguise. I hobbled through the events I was to attend with it heavily strapped, courtesy the physiotherapist just down the road from my sister's place in Havelock North. Such treatment in NZ is free, it is paid for under accident compensation, whether or not you were working at the time. Even the injuries of carousal, it seems, qualify. Fortunately I heal pretty quick and, by the following Tuesday, was able to climb up to, and circumambulate, the lake pictured in the post below. Also to climb down to the base of a waterfall at the Buried Village near Tarawera and back up the other side. And various other minor exploits on the road. But the hobbling continues ... and I'm sick of it. Four to six weeks, the physio said, before it's back to normal. I didn't believe her but that's just me making another bad choice: humiliation over pain.

pic shows, from left, Karl Stead, Peter Wells and Martin Edmond; photo by Maggie Hall