empty of future, renew the sign: lucent paradox, ineluctable trace ...


forking paths

When someone says to me, as sometimes happens, that cab driving is a good job for a writer, I don't usually disagree, even though my feeling is that writing is the best job for a writer and almost anything else, whatever residual benefits there may be, is a distraction. Teaching never worked for me, nor did journalism, nor proof-reading nor any other of the various things I've done to earn money. Taxi driving does, sort of, or I wouldn't still be doing it; but that doesn't mean I don't regret the time it takes away from other pursuits.

What they mean is that, driving a taxi, you meet many different kinds of people, which is true; what they perhaps forget, or don't realise, is that most of these meetings are brief and superficial and never lead to anything much apart from an exchange of money, a goodbye and a disappearance into the night. It's better like that: the more interesting the ride, the more likely it is to have unintended consequences. While knowledge of where the brothels are, the nightclubs, the gambling dens and the rest, is to my mind a poor substitute for knowledge, say, of the human heart. Which isn't to say that you won't find out something about that taking a working girl to work, you might.

One thing you do gain is an ability to make swift, hopefully accurate, assessments of character - you have to. Another is that you become almost preternaturally aware of the contingent nature of events. Time as a garden of forking paths is in plain view around every corner, down every straight: if this, then this; if not this, then that; if the other, then the other, will be your fate. You are always, as the tag on my taxi driving blog has it, at a nodal point where destinies fork. I do value this knowledge.

I was thinking about it today while walking over to Dulwich Hill … among other things. There's a new second hand shop in Junction Road I wanted to check out on the way. Just as I left it, I came into one of those moments of stillness you are sometimes lucky enough to find. I was looking at the strangely crenellated roof of the block of old shops on the corner of Junction and Moonbie. There was a dove mourning nearby, children chanting in the school across the road, a magpie in a jacaranda tree gargling the rain in its throat and, in the next street, one old man haranguing another, without malice, in Greek or Italian. All these distant, evocative sounds under the cerulean of the autumn sky, that ineffable blue you never see anywhere else.

Always at such moments I feel, below the recent past (the 200 year old one) something far more ancient that still survives, even in the humdrum of the suburbs, even here, inhering in the stones perhaps, in the gums, that blue air ... I'm walking on by now in the pleasant state in which sentences begin to form in the mind when another voice impinges on my consciousness, a familiar one, although I cannot at first place it ... angels and ministers of grace defend us! It's Little Johnny at his most unctuous, someone's broadcasting Question Time, very loud, out across the very suburb where the malheureux was spawned and grew up, although I think the family home might have been a little to the south of Dulwich Hill, in Earlwood.

This too, though not exactly welcome, enters my meditation on forking paths, because it is at least possible, some say likely, that the 2007 election will see his dead hand raised at last from across our necks: who knows, we've had him for eleven years now, that's longer than the nine years Muldoon, whom in some respects he resembles, stole from us.

At the Sally Army store in Old Canterbury Road there are blown emu eggs for sale for five dollars each but I manage to resist buying one, I’d only break it. Instead, I pick up a Penguin Classic from the 1950s, E V Rieu, the translator of Homer, this time turning his attention to The Four Gospels (1952). I've just re-read my father's copy of his The Odyssey (1946), passed on The Iliad (1950) and hadn't realised the Greek of the gospels was what he'd done next. Also, for a dollar, a small leather bound notebook of handmade paper that I'll probably never have the courage to write anything in. Round the corner is an immaculately restored 1938 McLaughlan Buick limo, a straight eight, which I examine carefully and with great admiration ... well, there's more, but I haven't got to the point yet, have I?

The point is, I'll hear next week about a grant application I've made. If it's successful, I'll stop driving for the next few months and write a book. It's a book about Sydney and may even include some of the anecdotes I've gathered from taxi driving, although the subject is not driving per se, rather it is a quest to find an artist, a New Zealander originally, who's lost, presumed dead but may still be alive and, even if he isn't, has certainly gone on a lot longer than anybody thought and produced a body of work nobody knows much about ...

And if they don't grant me the grant, well, I probably won't be able to write the book. This may sound peculiar, and it hurts me to say it, but I think it's right. If I can't do it this year I'd have somehow to fit it in around the two books I've got planned for next year, one of which I'll definitely write (I've been offered an advance, the email came just now, literally now, while I was drafting this) and the other ... yes, that too, hopefully. The funding body decision has already been made and is on its way towards me, which gives me a breathless feeling, either I'll have to keep on driving for the rest of the year or I'll start a new book, which is like embarking on a voyage of no return into a country without a name.

Meanwhile I'm ambling past a grubby looking corner building that I half remember dropping someone off outside of one Sunday night, he had a pushbike, I recall, I picked him up at a railway station, maybe Ashfield ... the windows down the side are open, I glance in, yes, I'm right, there are two bikes in there, in bits, the frames leaning against stacks of books in a low and messy room and I'm looking out for the bloke now, I liked him, to say hello, maybe we could chat about the contingencies of fate, he must be around if the windows are open but no, I don't see him and I'm not going to impose, I wouldn't do that, I just carry on walking until I get home and start ... doing this.


Time Tells

Today, May 18, is the anniversary of my arrival in Australia. A whole alphabet of years has elapsed since then, it's the Zed year that's just ended and so I can start again, perhaps in Arabic or Cyrillic. It was a grey, wet day back then in 1981, just like today; the rain didn't stop for two weeks, while I sloshed from the hotel in Kings Cross down to the Combined Services base in Paddington to do my taxi training. I got into driving because, within days of arriving in Sydney, I met a fellow called Graeme Shepherd who was in the Merchant Marine but moonlighted as a cabbie while ashore. Graeme, whose brother Roger founded Flying Nun records, extolled the virtues of the job and, like a fool, I believed him. Graeme will have his Master Mariner's ticket by now, he lives in Tasmania and commands one of those huge floating behemoths that come in and out of the harbour; I haven't seen him for years.

In May, 1981, Bob Marley had just died, of cancer, in a Florida clinic. I remember flying back from Napier to Auckland after hearing the news, looking at the back of the neck of a shinehead sitting in front of me on the Fokker Friendship, and singing under my breath: Jah would never give the power to a baldhead / Run come crucify the dread / Time alone, oh! time will tell / Think you're in heaven, but you living in hell ... a few weeks before that, Ronald Reagan was shot in Washington DC; later the Gipper famously said: Getting shot hurts. Then a few days after Bob died, on the 64th anniversary of the Fatima revelation, the Pope was shot in Rome. There were shots sounding all around the world: later that May, someone popped off six in the direction of the Queen, but they were blanks.

What else? Mitterand had just been elected in France, Red Ken Livingstone, now Lord Mayor, as Leader of the Greater London Council until it was abolished by Maggie Thatcher in 1986. Here in Australia we had Old Stoneface, Malcolm Fraser, as our PM and there was, just like there is now, a minerals boom going on. I couldn't believe how profligate people were with their money, pulling oodles of cash out of their pockets to pay for their ride and scattering notes across the floor of the cab, often without bothering to pick them up again. Boom or no boom, you don't find fifty dollar notes on the back seat any more like you did then. It was Fraser, often caricatured as one of those Easter Island heads, who said in his faintly bored patrician accent that Life wasn't meant to be easy, enraging just about everybody. No-one seemed to know that he was quoting Bernard Shaw, nor that he'd deliberately left off the second part of the remark: ... but take courage: it can be delightful!

What was I doing? What did I want? Hope for? Expect? It's hard to remember, I was so young then, not even thirty, and without much clarity of thought or purpose. I know I wanted to go to the Film School and I did apply under a program they ran where writers experienced in other forms could learn how to put screenplays together, but I wasn't really experienced in other forms and my application was declined. I can still recall, with blushing shame, a sentence from the personal statement you had to make in which I said that I was a dreamer, something I make allowance for, but no apology. If there was one sentence that condemned my application to failure, that was it.

And yet ... it was true then and probably still is now; I just wish I hadn't been so pompous about it. My idea was to learn how to write films, for a living, and then with the ease and comfort and unlimited time so purchased, write books. It's peculiar, looking back, to realise that I have written both books and films, but that the ease, comfort and unlimited time in which to do so have largely escaped me. They say you should be careful what you wish for because your wishes may come true and mine mostly have: it was the books and films that mattered to me, not the comfort and the ease, which I naively thought would somehow just come as part of the package. I never thought I would end up as one of the working poor, but that's what I am right now.

But I don't want to sound maudlin either, because I'm not: you have to play the hand you’re dealt. What really has changed between then and now is my clarity of purpose. Then, I was full of piss and wind about wanting to be a writer but in fact spent almost no time doing it: I shudder when I look back at the years I wasted, mooning around, because I really didn't know what I wanted to say or how to say it; whereas now, I'm relatively clear about what I want to do but more likely to lack the means and opportunity to do it. Driving a cab for a living has consequences for writing, one of which is that it's difficult, perhaps impossible, to embark on any long work ... not impossible per se, but impossible for me. I need to see a stretch of unfilled time ahead of me if I am to write a book, at least six months, and you don't get that as a working stiff. That's probably why the book that's coming out, or has already come out, Waimarino County, is made up of shorter pieces, because that's what I can do when I'm driving, write shorter pieces that require shorter stretches of concentration, a week perhaps if it's an essay, an hour or so if it's a post, like this, to a blog.

Meanwhile, this morning, when I woke at about six o'clock to the sound of rain falling and frogs creaking in the neighbour's pond out the back, I thought of that Bob Marley song again, partly because I heard a wonderful live set of him and the Wailers (at the Roxy in LA in 1976) on the radio the other night and partly because I knew I would be writing this today. So I came in here and called up the lyrics without remembering the beautiful middle section of the song which, when I read the words in the grey half light and heard the music begin to play in my head, sent (paradoxical) tears rolling down my checks ... and bring them again now to my eyes :

Oh, my sycamore tree, saw the freedom tree
Saw you settle the score
Oh, children, weep no more
Weep no more
Children, weep no more …


Dystopia : X Dreams

You are adrift in a foreign country, of which you do not know even the name. You look it up in an encyclopedia; it is called Dystopia. You cannot read anything else in the book, which is written in a strange alphabet, like Cyrillic. Nor can you understand the signs on the shops or what people in the street are saying. Everything familiar has dropped away. You are as if abandoned in your own mind. Nevertheless, this place is also a simulacrum of a city you lived in in your youth, and you are able to use relicts of the map in your head to find your way to your sister's house. She is in the kitchen, with her woman lover. You want to break down and cry, and for her to hold you in her arms as once she did many years ago in another house in the city which this place resembles and is not. My life is very complicated, she says, by way of explanation. You leave without saying goodbye and go up past the shops at Three Lamps to catch the bus. No bus comes, so you start walking along the footpath towards K Road. You have no destination, you just want to keeping on moving. You lose yourself down this endless street, which extends further into the distance the longer you walk it.

You are in the kitchen of a cafe called the Verona. Out the back in the yard your partner in crime, a misshapen midget like yourself, is being executed with machetes. You don't know what you have done, nor who these people are, only that they are chopping him up, and you are next. You take a burning coal from the brazier to light your way and run out the front door of the cafe. The night is grey and shapeless. You cross K Road and go down a diagonal street opposite. Once you are out of sight of the Verona, you pause and look at the light in your hand. It gives forth a reddish glow but no heat and now you see it is not a coal at all but a tiny skull, intensely malevolent. In the instant you know that it is futile to run any further: whatever you do, you will be dismembered in your turn. You stand there paralysed with fear as dark assailants drift down the murky street towards you.

You are unsheathing a woman from her peacock blue dress, peeling it slowly over her opulent white breasts, which spill out into your vagrant hands. She is older than you, beautiful, not so much shy as unused to love-making. Past the rise of her belly, you see a greyish-white stripe running vertically down the centre of the black mass of her pubic hair, like a blaze on the forehead of a horse. As you plough her crease with your finger, seeking and finding wetness, she gasps and says: My husband hasn't found that spot in years! You begin to worry that you will ejaculate prematurely ... the spasmodic thudding of a copious flow of semen from the vas deferens and on down the urethra into the sticky gap between belly and sheets wakes you. A pearly light is gathered at the windows, and the birds are beginning. You have a curious feeling that this woman is real and is staying, or living, in one of the nearby houses. You feel that she too is lying awake in a mood of post-coital sadness, somewhere nearby. Perhaps she is the next door neighbour who smiled wanly at you as she wheeled out the recycling bin full of bottles emptied by a houseful of drunken men at the end of last weekend. What if such phantasms are real projections? And such experiences true encounters? If she were your succubus, would you then have been her incubus? A pity you cannot ask your neighbour for her dreams.

You go to one of your childhood homes to pick up the key to the mail box. It is built over and behind a Chemist shop on Main Street. Your mother is there in the kitchen, doing something, but you don't speak to her. You take the key and leave by the back door. Then you are on a train, going inland. As it approaches the place where you were born, you see old wooden houses gone silver with age. Over the rise and down the hill we come, there are many of us, converging, walking into the town. It is the return of the scattered. We mass, we come together, greeting each other. At a bend in the road is a massive, blasted tree, of enormous girth but almost without foliage. We are overcome with emotion at the sight of this tree. We are weeping. We have come home.

You are climbing in some red mountains, where the rock is folded like the grey sandstone outcrops on the hills above this valley. Coming to the top, you gaze across a limitless stretch of water where two seas meet. It is the place of leaping off of spirits. While you are looking out, the bowl of the ocean suddenly reverses, becoming one with the bowl of the sky, and standing before an immense void you are overcome with vertigo and fall fearfully into nothingness. You come to walking along a black shore where some fishermen and peasant farmers are lounging among boulders. They are French. You fill a wooden bowl with a steaming black liquid from their bubbling pot, and sprinkle black cheese upon it. With bravado, in the sight of those derisive peasants, you taste it. It's good. Then you hear a voice, saying the adventure is over and you must return. The mountains have gone a crusty, crystalline white, like snow. You cross over them without any difficulty at all and take the road inland; it is one down which you have travelled before in dreams. As it climbs past great fans of gravel onto a scrubby plain, you see ahead a coach and horses; there is a white hand, the same white as the mountains, emblazoned on the coachman's back. The man riding shotgun is keeping off wolves. As you struggle to catch up with the horses, you realise there are two wolves, both wounded, in a thicket of thorn bushes at the side of the road. They are a big shaggy yellow male and a smaller black female. Again the fear, so intense you have to wake yourself up to escape it. And, waking, you remember the red mountains, the black shore, the white hand and the yellow wolf, as if recalling a landscape from one of the further provinces of Dystopia.

A feast of poets, hostessed by a Matriarch—your mother!—to which one poet is refused entry. He is outside in the rain, denied the table where manna is devoured until someone who knows him arrives and brings him in. Wet, shivering, cold, he is a hungry ghost. His friends don't show. He can't explain, so he can't come in. Finally you (yes, you have been there all along) say you know him and that he is a dead man, he died of AIDS, but is a poet nevertheless. You go out, take his hand, lead him in and sit him down at the table. He is given bread and potatoes and soup, but he does not eat. He sits at the table in collar and tie, like a proper poet. Everyone is watching him. Soon, his friends will arrive. Then, perhaps, he will eat.

You are looking at paintings your sister made four years before she died—the dates are written clearly upon the backs of the canvases, together with notes, jottings, fragments of sketches. They are superb paintings on long narrow scrolls, richly patterned, quite unlike any you have seen in real life. You know she made and hid these works so that they would be discovered after her death; behind the great sense of loss you feel is another, more complex emotion: you have always thought that her untimely death was at least partly due to her inability to find a way of expressing herself, yet here are works that are complex, mature, fully achieved, which she could not possibly have made without knowing what she was doing. On the back of the last canvas is a doodle in which you seem to read your own name. Sensing a message, you lean closer, only to find the lines mutating into a scribble pattern, a dense tangle of black, a mare's nest.

A woman is lying next to you in bed, a pale boy curled up on her other side, gushing sperm. You are ranting. How dare she have another in your bed? How dare she!? She listens in her quiet, calm way. She listens and says nothing. She will not do what you want. She will not abandon the pale boy at her other side.

You have come to interview a young woman. She is lying in a bed, wearing nothing but a man's shirt. You stretch out beside her, trying to conceal your erection below the edge of the bed cover. She giggles. Is that what you came for? she says. You smile and say nothing. She takes off her shirt: her breasts are small, pendulous, with protuberant nipples. She lies back, and you bend your head to lick between her legs. Everything is clean, pink and curled shut; she has no pubic hair. Her clitoris lies there like the little tongue on a cashew nut. She squirms when she realises what you are going to do, but she does not tell you not to. A panicky feeling, as of imminent, unwanted orgasm, rises, and you wake up. You have not come. You try to go back to sleep, but you cannot. You feel cheated, and you are, but only by yourself.

A mediaeval artist with a Polynesian tattoo is whispering in your ear. He is trying to seduce you. He says that although he has ended up in a waka—that is, in a wheelchair—he still wants you. He says that you are beautiful, more beautiful than your mother or your sister. His friend, the expressionist painter, is ripping wallpaper off the wall in a derelict house, exposing Disney comics pasted underneath, the brightly coloured, banal images fading, peeling. The tattooed man is still talking. It isn't just that he wants to fuck you; he wants to slit your throat while he's doing it. His voice mutters on like the sea. His tongue flickers in your ear. You stay where you are. You let him.