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 …