Saturday, April 18, 2020

Vincent's death

July, 1890.

My name is Vincent Van Gogh. Today I had the terrible misfortune of being shot. I am afraid it is the end for me. However, in one sense, I shouldn’t be afraid. Not only do I face my imminent death philosophically- all have died before me- I also feel that this life- as it is- is no longer of any use. There is no purpose for me anymore, in living.

Today I began painting as usual. What else is there for me to do? I am resigned to being a failed artist. I have no other certainty in my life. In fact, there is no certainty either in painting. But perhaps more certainly in this than for anything else. I am not a baker. I do not bake. I am not a tailor. I do not mend clothes. And I am far from a chef, or a postman or a carpenter.

As I wandered from Ravoux’s inn into the brilliant Auvers sun my thoughts began hopefully. I saw the town hall that I painted the other day. I passed my dear doctor’s garden. I went past the church which has frightened me all these days. I painted the windows purple last month. I began to see yellow everywhere. You see I had reached the wheatfields. It is not the first time I have tackled these wheatfields. I did the same thing in Arles. They provide comfort for me somehow.

 As I said before my day began hopefully. What is there not to be hopeful about a new baby grandson, young Vincent, named after me. I painted the almond tree near me, filled with blossom and an aching blue sky as a surprise for Theo and Jo’s baby boy. When I was in Paris in the spring I saw my pictures again. I mean the ones I painted in Arles. I turned away from the ones I did at the asylum. But certain pictures. Well they made me weep. The bedroom, my lovely sunflowers, the chair for Gauguin, some outdoor studies I think are pretty good. Mostly cypress trees and wheatfields. I wept because I saw my life flash before me. I know these are damn good. And together! What a miracle they made. They have been made straight from my heart. God knows how much they have cost me my life. But I would not change anything.

Here in Auvers I have been in a kind of frenzy of creating things. But it’s all different. If my genius is one day discovered they will say that ‘Vincent was mad. He spent some time in an asylum. He was terribly nervous and had dizzy spells. He even cut off a piece of his ear. No wonder he was committed and locked away.’ They will speak the truth. But there is another truth. And it will be seen in these pictures that I have done here in the North. Terribly desolate landscapes after landscapes. I have not had to go out of my way to create this feeling of loneliness and worthlessness that I have. It has all come to naught. I am not old in years but,’ a quoi bon?’

Today I ventured once again to these wheatfields of Auvers. I painted them the other day with a dark, stormy sky made mostly from Prussian blue. I made sure I had my little revolver with me. I use it to…. Oh well, it scarcely matters anymore. I soon found myself a position to stand with my easel. I always find this to be the easiest part. I simply setup and stare. Today as usual there were black crows. Not a large number but I know a lot about symbolism by now. I urgently needed these black crows in my painting. The lurid yellow. These black crows. Thinking of my brother and how he would shield from his little boy. I apply the paint thickly. I create more crows. And the sky…I can’t help myself. Thick streaks of blue, dark and without hope…

Some boys are in the distance. I have seen them before. Schoolboys like the ones in Arles. French schoolboys who are bored and want to know why a madman with paintbrushes and an easel is in the middle of this huge expanse of wheatfield. I can see them coming and I am weary today. I don’t care anymore. I do not want to justify myself to them. I try to fend them off, their laughs and their sneers. But I am overpowered and they take hold of my gun… and then I am lying down and dizzy again. I am afraid they will take my picture. I know I have been shot and sense the boys have run away. I feel overwhelmed and must get back to Ravoux but my stomach lurches in pain and I bleed like I did once by my ear.

My dear brother. Thanks for the 50-fr. note you sent me. There are many things I would like to write you about but I feel it would be useless. I have risked my life for my work as you know. We are living in a time of comparative crisis. When you leave Jo and the little one and come and see me you will see I am a changed man.

'In 2011, another theory about the artist’s death emerged, when two American researchers claimed that Van Gogh didn’t actually kill himself, but was instead the victim of an accident. They theorized that two young boys playing with a gun accidentally pressed the trigger and wounded Van Gogh by mistake.'

Friday, April 3, 2020

Social distancing- a new or old phase in our lives?

What great little social distancers we can all be when asked. Although there are exceptions to this rule, many of us have been practising social distancing for years. Whenever it’s your friend’s birthday and you send him or her a text message it’s a kind of social distancing, isn’t it? Think about the time we used to visit our friend, or at least ring to say ‘happy birthday.’

On public transport we have always been pretty good at social distancing. You sit in the vacant seat that is furthest from other occupants. Then you proceed to dig out your phone (if you’re a teenager this takes all of one or two seconds) and stare blankly at the screen. You are in your own bubble. Total social distancing, body and mind.

The Chinese, they say, are good at joining other people’s tables in a café or restaurant. We, on the other hand, will still search hard for that vacant table to avoid any potentially embarrassing encounter. If we do need to join with others because the establishment is crowded, we will very tentatively, very awkwardly ask if we can join that table and then proceed to keep our own company anyway.
This social distancing is terribly easy for many of us. We prefer to stay home rather than go to work, or walk to the shops, or drive to the market or the shopping centre or get our haircut. At home we have just ourselves or our partner and perhaps our own protective family. We like it when no-one knocks on the door. We have our phones at our disposal. We have our televisions and trillions of websites to explore on the internet. We can text ‘til our heart’s content and then as an alternative watch hours and hours of Netflix.

Many individual people and families have social distancing down pat. They have been doing it for years. When this virus blows over at last, many will feel the pinch. They will have to re-enter the social world they were partial members of before, but they will be dragged kicking and screaming.

We are finding more and more that we don’t have to go to workplaces anymore anyway. Thousands upon thousands of us will be working from home for the coming months. If we can do it successfully in a crisis, why can’t we be more efficient and do it all the time anyway. ‘Efficiency’ is a word government likes.
So, here’s my utopian vision of life after coronavirus. It’s like the pictures we have seen of life the moment WW1 or WW2 ends. Mass celebrations in the streets. Balloons and streamers and people crowding city streets and country squares. Parks filled with animals and children. Shrill cries of pleasure from little kids. Strangers smiling and shaking hands with each other. Friends and acquaintances warmly greeting each other. The world outdoors. Buses, trains and trams buzzing with conversation. Community gardens overflowing with food and flowers. Sporting ovals packed with people and food stands. Street parades, skywriters writing in the sky, ice-cream vans in suburban streets, coloured lollipops, men on stilts, festivals and fun-filled malls, caravan parks humming with families, people meeting new people at the hairdressers and at bars and in clubs.

When we can go back to normal, let’s not go back to normal. Let’s bury every form of social distancing, new and old. We can enter a new world of engagement and be like those soft-winged creatures at the Butterfly House at the Melbourne Zoo.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Landscapes in Emily Bronte, Lawrence and Mansfield


Tonight, I am thinking a lot about landscapes.

It has come about because I have recently read the ultimate landscape novel ‘Wuthering Heights’. The landscape, or the setting, is of course the moors surrounding the Bronte Parsonage near Haworth, in Lancashire. I don’t have the book with me, but some of the vocabulary I am left with in my memory is craggy, rocky, heather, black frost, fleecy cloud, abundant rain, temporary brooks, shadows and sunshine, transient mist, wintry drifts, primroses & crocuses, impassable roads, and so on. It is a tough environment which suited only the toughest of people. And Emily Bronte must have been one of the toughest young women who ever lived. The novel is extraordinary for its power, cruelty, violence and menace. It paints a visceral world of loneliness, imprisonment, and despair, as well as other gothic elements like madness, imprisonment, the supernatural and mysticism.

 It must have been thrilling for EJB to apply her imaginative world to such a ‘fantastic’ and surreal story, dark and foreboding, although in the case of Heathcliff and Cathy, and younger Cathy and Edgar, her father, full of romantic love and filial bonding as well. My impression of EJB is that of someone who could be ruthless like her characters, hard-nosed and wilfully independent and determined and capable of cruelty. Filled from top to toe with the ‘romantic imagination’ but understanding of the uncompromising tenor of her times and the people who inhabited remote areas of the wild countryside in the nineteenth century.

The landscape of D H Lawrence’s childhood never left him. He grew up in Eastwood, Nottingham, semi-rural with a fairly short distance to town (Nottingham) but also enclosed by woods and country paths and farms and wild nature. His landscape crept into novels his whole life, from the beginnings with ‘The White Peacock’ and ‘Sons & Lovers’, to latter works such as ‘The Rainbow’ and ‘’The Lost Girl’. Despite the fact that he spent a good deal of his fertile writing career living abroad in places like Australia, New Mexico and Italy, Lawrence also came back to the world of his childhood in his latter books like ‘The Virgin & The Gypsy’ and ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. Just like a venture into Bronte territory is manna from heaven for me, it is similar with the Lawrence world of Eastwood, Moorgreen Reservoir, Cossal (Cossethay in ‘The Rainbow’).
Lawrence’s favourite place of his childhood was Hagg’s Farm, where he would walk several miles to visit the Chambers family, all of the Chambers family who were a second family, and in particular the love of his youth, Jessie Chambers (Miriam in ‘Sons & Lovers’) who he might have married but for the fact as he later said ‘she would have destroyed (my) genius’ (not a feminist-friendly afterthought). Lawrence wrote Jessie’s brother a letter near the end of his life about the joy of visiting The Haggs, which never left him. He called it ‘the countryside of my heart’. The closest, perhaps, to experiencing these feelings of joy and comfort and landscape again were probably whilst living in New Mexico with his wife and friends, baking bread, writing novels, riding horses, visiting ancient places like Guadalajara…

Katherine Mansfield came to hate New Zealand, her birthplace, as enclosed, smothering, provincial. As an adolescent she had a taste of life in London, and on return she had a miserable period in Wellington with her parents where she felt listless and angry. She was the archetypal bored young adult in her restlessness and feelings of confinement and restlessness. On her return to Queens College London, she blossomed in an environment more conducive to her study of music, imagination and literature, in particular Oscar Wilde and other so-called ‘decadents’.

 This is not to say that NZ did not feature in her writing as she grew to become a highly talented and revered writer of short stories. We see Wellington and its environs crop up in stories like ‘The Voyage’ and ‘At The Bay’ and ‘Prelude’ and ‘The Garden Party’. These are some of her best stories. It is just that when we think of Katherine Mansfield, we sometimes forget she is from New Zealand because she embraced Europe and everything it had to offer in the 1920’s so wholeheartedly, and never seemed to entertain thoughts of ever going back there.
Landscapes feed writers’ imaginations. I doubt that Virginia Woolf would ever have said that Katherine Mansfield was the only writer she was jealous of if KM had have stayed in NZ all her life. Lawrence’s books and stories and poems and plays are much more vivid and varied for having the thirst to travel and experience life in some of its extremities on his so-called ‘savage pilgrimage’ to far flung places in Europe, America and Australia. As for EJB, who lived until only 30, what might she have created had she travelled more, and lived on the continent or the US or some island for a period of time. When she died it is said that she was busy with a second novel. It is difficult to imagine Emily Bronte attached to anywhere other than her beloved moors that seem such an intrinsic part of her psyche and her life. And I want to go back there and search for Cathy and Heathcliff.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Holidaying by the sea, and thinking of Wuthering Heights

It is January, 2020. It is another new year. I am holidaying on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria at a tourist spot Apollo Bay called Skene's Creek.

The shoreline below us at Skene’s Creek is filled with rocky plates. These are mostly thick but flattened and easy to walk upon in their smoothness. They create a magical, moon-like atmosphere, except for the choppy waves that sometimes plummet on them. Occasionally you see tendrils of seaweed or lime-green sea plants growing on them, but they are mostly bare. Yesterday we saw some birdlife, or rather death, in the form of a gull and a fairy penguin.

This is the time of year of the after effects of bushfires. They have spread wildly and devastatingly across several states, and in particular in NSW and Victoria. The atmosphere is fogged with a thick, grey cloudy haze. The sky is smoke-grey, even white in places, and it looks like it will bucket with rain, but we are only getting intermittent, brief showers. I spoke to a neighbour that I saw at the beach. His teenage boys have coloured hair. One of them, the tallest one, has a mop of bright red, curly hair. He looks like Thing One or Thing Two from ‘The Cat in the Hat.’ When I said ‘it’s not great holiday weather!’, he looked surprised at my defeatism, and in optimistic fashion, replied ‘at least it is seldom raining.’

Despite our smoggy, smoky environs, and the fact that it is a bit too cold to swim in the choppy ocean, it is enough that we have this glorious moon-scape not far from the bottom of our garden. It is like another prehistoric world and I gaze into little or large rock pools expectantly for mysterious ocean dwellers, dead or alive. The roaring sea is absorbing to watch. I like the lovely emerald green of the sea just as it is about to curl or roll into another flashing wave. You also have the sensation of the soft sand under your feet or the smooth plates of rock you can stand on in order to look imperiously over the water. It is amazing how free you feel. In the distance, in the murky haze at night, the Otway Lighthouse has a steady beam to the right. It is just you, the distant beam, the incessant waves crashing on the moon plates, a white bird or two with stork-like legs, the grey, unfriendly mountains, the thick, mysterious haze, silver sky. And besides the muted roar of the hungry sea, it is so quiet. I imagine I am on a big ship with friends and wine, flooding across the seas, looking for an uninhabited island, without responsibilities and expectations.

Then I remember I am immersed in ‘Wuthering Heights’ and I think of ghosts, and Heathcliff, and Cathy calling, cold and shut out on the moors, and I think of the sea as being like a huge wet version of the moors, and how EJB, or Emily Bronte, would have wandered these moors time and time again, like me, bewildered, and charged and exhilarated by her surroundings, feeling other wordly and looking for whatever nature might fling up to you in the wildest spaces. Not a penguin or some other seabird for her, or a strange cream-coloured shell, or random rock pools housing who knows what. For her, wild dogs and various birds, a massive array of plant life, moss and heather blazing in the late Lancashire light, the plot of Wuthering Heights forming in her mind, the slow emergence of Cathy and Heathcliff, their second carnation, Hareton Earnshaw and Hindley, kindly Nell and steady Edgar and the strange and often hostile communications between Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, the violence and desperate lives, their frustrations and forced limitations and the cruelty and aggression. And it must be said smaller snatches of love, and hope as well and very real longing such as Earnshaw has for the younger Cathy at the end of the novel. EJB understood somehow the whole range or gamut of emotions that make up the human experience despite her relatively insular life.

The birthplace of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall- oh, to be there again now, very now… and just now it also occurs to me- and I find this very interesting- I have never thought much about the landscapes of Jane Austen. I guess this is because her novels are much more interior- still, the settings of Barton Hall, and Pemberton and the other great mansions- the lovely hills and valleys and dales of the English countryside, the sparkling streams where the men fish, the broad spaces where their hunting is done- I don’t care as much for.

I can remember vaguely Charlotte being dismissive of Austen. Perhaps she didn’t understand her, or her world. It is very different to Haworth (even so Charlotte was the one Bronte who became reasonably travelled and experienced with polite society through the success of Jane Eyre and introductions to people like Thackeray and Dickens).
It is not to say I don’t value Jane Austen. I like her. I esteem her. I like some of her novels, in fact, more than most of Jane Eyre, which I think is too long and needed more polish. Austen certainly does not lack polish or craft.

But I come back to Wuthering Heights. The attractiveness of the rawness of everything. There is not one in Austen like Heathcliff, the dirty orphaned boy who is dragged back to the Heights by his master and grows up to be cruel and vindictive and full of resentment about his place in society. No-one in Austen like Earnshaw, who is desperate to drag Catherine to bed and tear her clothes off. You can just feel this seething sense of sexual menace which is so surprising and compelling. Emily Bronte must have been so shocking for her time. Austen undoubtedly shocked too. She was full of subtle, clever criticism of her society and her best heroines were intelligent and resourceful and you can’t help but feel moved by the way things were so heavily stacked against them. But this sense of gender imprisonment is so much more powerful in Wuthering Heights. Elizabeth Bennett would have been shocked by Cathy. You could only imagine her take on Heathcliff and Hindley and Earnshaw. Perhaps Elizabeth would have coped better than some of the others.

It’s the language too, that is the great difference. I was enthralled by Bronte’s language of the gutter. Whilst Austen is cynical about everything, it is polite cynical. EJB however captures the attitudes of her people with devastating force, looking the reader straight in the eye and telling us exactly how her desperate people feel and think. And somehow she still directs our affection towards them.

Monday, December 30, 2019

The haunting by Sylvia Plath: dreams, blood, fire


‘“Very bad dreams lately. One just after my period last week of losing my month-old baby: a transparent meaning. The baby formed just like a baby, only small as a hand, died in my stomach and fell forward: I looked down at my bare belly and saw the round bump of its head in my right side, bulging out like a burst appendix. It was delivered with little pain, dead. Then I saw two babies, a big nine-month one, and a little one-month one with a blind white-piggish face nuzzling against it; a transfer image, no doubt, from Rosalind’s cat and kittens a few days before: the little baby was a funny shape, like a kitten with white skin instead of fur. But my baby was dead. I think a baby would make me forget myself in a good way. Yet I must find myself”.

Besides dreaming about dead babies, Sylvia Plath also dreamed about men, with violent associations:

“Lousy dreams… The other night it was men in costume, bright cummerbunds, knickers and white blouses, having a penalty given them, and not carried out, and suddenly forty years later they were lined up, I saw them small in the distance, and a man with his back to me and a great sword in his hand went down the line hacking off their legs at the knees, whereupon the men fell down like ninepins with their leg stumps and lower legs scattered. I believe they were supposed to dig their own graves on their leg stumps. This is too much. The world is so big so big so big. I need to feel a meaning and productiveness in my life.”

Then there is this one, quite complicated, and about betrayal. Ted Hughes who left her for Assia Weevil, and she sometimes feared, potentially other women as well, and her father who she always felt a sense of betrayal over, for dying on her when she was only about ten:

“I dreamed the other night of running after Ted through a huge hospital, knowing he was with another woman, going into mad wards and looking for him everywhere: what makes you think it was Ted? It had his face but it was my father, my mother. I identify him with my father at certain times, and these times take on great importance: e.g., that one fight at the end of the school year when I found him not there on the special day...Isn’t this an image of what I feel my father did to me?...Images of his faithlessness with women echo my fear of my father’s relation with my mother and Lady Death.”

Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes found dreams fascinating and often recorded them, and placed great significance on them. For both of them, their experience of dreams were especially vivid. I don’t know why some people have more vivid dreams than others. Perhaps you need a great imagination to dream well. Or a restless nature. Virginia Woolf said ‘It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.’ Clearly Plath enjoyed interpreting her dreams.

The reason I speculate about this is because recently I had the most fantastic dream about Sylvia Plath. It is hardly surprising that I dreamt of her. I think about her often. She is a regular part of my wandering thoughts. I feel kinship of some kind with her, as a sort of affinity or obviously one-sided spiritual connection. It is a little embarrassing to admit this. Me, along with thousands of other impressionable people around the world. My feelings about her have existed for about 30 years or more, and sometimes it intensifies, especially when there is a new book, or new information about her. An example is the new collected letters of recent times, two thick volumes.
We are, effectively, a very short time apart. She died in ’63 and I was born in ’64. Yes, I am thinking about the possibility of reincarnation. Why not? We all have to fantasise about something. You may laugh, in fact I know you will. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t allow your incredulity to affect my enthusiasm for the idea. At any rate, I had this powerful dream about Sylvia Plath. It affected me to the core. It is the strangest dream I have ever had. I wish, more than anything, she could hover ghostily next to me, at my desk, breathing on me in her ghostly closeness, and marvel at what I am about to tell her. I know it would astound her. It would probably find itself into a new poem, possibly a part of her Ariel 2 collection, called ‘D’s bloodthirsty dream.’

‘It is night time, but light. All lit up by a bright, white moon. There is no yew tree in sight. I am in the front yard of old neighbours, Frances and Ralph. It is next door to where I once lived less than ten years ago. I have illustrious company. A few undefined friends, or maybe family, and Sylvia Plath, in her latter shorter-haired days. She is lingering in benign fashion at my elbow. The whole group is talking passively about the bottom of the fence and the fact that there are weeds growing up under it. The juxtaposition with what is about to happen is hilarious in a black, black way.
Suddenly there’s a change. I am transfixed on Plath. The rest of the world disappears. She is wearing an expansively malevolent grin. Her eyes are bright red as though they are on fire. Not bloodshot, but deeply troubling and alien. I knock her onto the ground in one punch. Something compels me to want to overtake her. Urgently. It is the look on her face. Have you seen The Exorcist? She is Regan-esque. Sylvia Plath is desperate to possess me. I am straddling her on all fours and banging her head onto the ground. Her mouth roars. Her skin is bright and her breath is sour. She wants to sit up with her red hair.

Somehow, I have a knife nearby. The situation is desperate. It is a long knife with a curved blade, perfect for gutting fish. I plunge the knife into Plath’s abdomen time and time again. The blood comes in thick waves. It is not Duncan’s ‘multitudinous seas’, nor is it thin and watery. It is like a thick crimson heavy soup. Naturally it disturbs the hell out of me. I am doing it out of necessity as I don’t wish to be possessed, but it doesn’t make it any easier.  I am not thinking of my literary hero, Sylvia Plath, rather this evil thing is more like evil Regan to me. She just happens to be Ms Plath, Ms Plath incarnate and at the same time inhuman and wanting desperately to possess me.’

Plath wrote about dreams a lot. She also wrote about blood a lot. I am thinking of the poem ‘Cut’ where she accidentally slices the top part of her thumb off and refers to the incident in this slightly macabre way:

‘What a thrill -
My thumb instead of an onion.
The top quite gone
Except for a sort of hinge

Of skin,
A flap like a hat,
Dead white.
Then that red plush.’

Well I am getting this ‘red plush’ myself here, the same blood it seems that she found when chopping an onion in 1962. But no ‘thrill’ for me. I don’t want to see it but I have no choice.

Plath famously referred to the writing of poetry as ‘the blood jet’ which cannot be stopped. She had miscarriages (and children) and heavy periods. Blood of course can symbolize life but it can also symbolize death. When she met Ted Hughes she reportedly bit his cheek so hard after he kissed her neck that blood ran down his face. This would mark the start of a new life-changing relationship. Then there is ‘Daddy’, her most famous poem:

‘If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——
The vampire who said he was you   
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.’

Well this is certainly getting closer to what I experienced the other night outside Frances and Ralph’s.

The next stage of this horror story which fills me with dread as I relate it as accurately as I can, is the fire. Somehow there was a box of Redheads at my disposal. Killing by knives wasn’t happening. It must be this supernatural thing. I distinctly remember that a knife was not enough to repel Dracula. So, in a frenzy, I started scratching match after match and applying them to Plath’s torso, in the same area where her deep and bloody gashes were. I don‘t remember having any access to petrol or anything flammable, but I remember her stomach lighting up and a rigorous fire scorching her, licking away, feeding upon her.

As in the case of blood, fire also interested Sylvia Plath. In ‘Burning the Letters’, she seems to be erasing the part of her life that is associated with her adulterer husband, Ted Hughes:

‘So, I poke at the carbon birds in my housedress.
They are more beautiful than my bodiless owl,
They console me--
Rising and flying, but blinded.
They would flutter off, black and glittering, they would be coal angels
Only they have nothing to say but anybody.
    I have seen to that.’

Fire can be devastating and it can be beautiful, or both at the same time. There is little doubt that it can annihilate. In ‘Fever 103’ Plath writes of ‘the tongues of hell’ and makes reference to ‘Hiroshima ash.’ In an interview she did with the BBC towards the end of her life, she remarked that:

‘… I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrific, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind. I think that personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn't be a kind of shut-box and mirror looking, narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on.

These ‘bigger things’ thus include concentration camps, bombings, annihilations, killings, torture. From her own experience as a mental health patient in the 50’s, electroconvulsive therapy as described biographically in The Bell Jar:

'Doctor Gordon was unlocking the closet. He dragged out a table on wheels with a machine on it and rolled it behind the head of the bed. The nurse started swabbing my temples with a smelly grease. As she leaned over to reach the side of my head nearest the wall, her fat breast muffled my face like a cloud or a pillow. A vague, medicinal stench emanated from her flesh. "Don't worry," the nurse grinned down at me. "Their first time everybody's scared to death." I tried to smile, but my skin had gone stiff, like parchment. Doctor Gordon was fitting two metal plates on either side of my head. He buckled them into place with a strap that dented my forehead, and gave me a wire to bite. I shut my eyes. There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath. 

Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant. I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done. '

As horrific as this experience is, I can’t help feeling my attempted murder (or mercy killing) experience of Sylvia Plath was worse- that is, SP and the Devil combined. I can’t remember if her eyes were still of a scorching red, possessive appearance, but I do know that the fire didn’t work. I tried my best to scorch her after trying to disembowel her with the knife, and at first I thought I had won.

Our small group of whoever it was left Frances and Ralph’s driveway and began the short walk to my old front entrance next door at number 63. Something made me glance up and take in my company. Here I was, reasonably confident that I had dismantled and destroyed Plath moments earlier, only to see her walking with the rest of us. Straight out of an Edgar Allan Poe story, and it must be said, The Exorcist, there was tall blonde-haired Sylvia walking along the fence, looking across at me, a malevolent grin of triumph spread across her face, number 63 bound, ready to resume her possessive torturing in my own house.

I shivered involuntarily with terrified expectation, and began screaming, enough to awaken my wife and thus end the most gorgeously thrillingly fearful dream of my entire life.        

Saturday, December 7, 2019


I HAVE nearly finished Gerri Kimber’s ‘Katherine Mansfield -The Early Years’, and it is so snug and warm and calming and reassuring and lovely, it’s like an old lost friend. Except it is also luxuriating in its richness and wonderment, and I don’t really have an old friend like this.

 I have come to it after many books by and about Katherine Mansfield. The famous Antony Alpers’ biography, her notebooks and journals, Kathleen Jones’ biography, a favourite, and recently I acquired the Edinburgh University Press editions of her complete works, a great treasure. I was about 20 when I first read Mansfield. I nominated her short story collection ‘Bliss & Other Stories’ as a personal favourite when I was with a group of students in an English tutorial at university many years ago. I read all her short stories then. Those wondrous years of active imagination, fervent reading, abundant curiosity. She has stayed the course with me- along with D H Lawrence and Sylvia Plath- when many others, I have somehow, let go.

When I was in England she was a part of that great literary pilgrimage conducted over a period of more than two years. The ‘Elephant’ house with Murry in Hampstead Heath, her friend Koteliansky’s house at Acacia Road in St John’s Wood, in Fontainebleau in France stumbling luckily upon her gravestone- ‘the wife of Middleton Murry…’. Then many years later to Wellington itself, the childhood home in Thorndon, now a museum.

So I sit in my bedroom any spare moment of any day, thinking of KM constantly, wishing this book of her early years would never end. Somehow, despite the amount of time I have dedicated to her, I have forgotten a lot of these early years. Or at least some of it. It intrigues me from beginning to end. Nothing ordinary about her. Her very real passions and frustrations. Solitariness. Desires. Influences. Loves. Resentments. Ambition.

The book begins with her wealthy origins in Wellington and the various births in the family- the sisters and the much-loved younger brother who would be killed during the war. Not long after Vera was born came Chaddie, then KM in 1888, and Gwendoline who died as a baby followed very quickly by KM’s youngest sister, Jeanne. The family moved to nearby Karori, presumably for health reasons, to a house with a 14-acre garden called ‘Chesney Wold’ where the last sibling, KM’s favourite, Leslie was born. Karori became important to KM’s fiction. She wrote many stories as an adult based on her time there. I also saw that the school she went to- called, interestingly, Karori Normal School’ - is still functioning-

When she was 9 the family moved back to Thorndon (75 Tinakori Road), and the Beauchamp girls were enrolled in Wellington Girls’ High School, also still extant-  This is where her first short story was published, aged 9. This is where the book begins to show KM as emerging as different to her sisters and her peers- an outsider, aloof, moody, idiosyncratic. And poetic. But now, and through her teen years, there is also a sense of awkwardness as well- her plumpness, glasses (which mysteriously disappeared later), and bourgeoning interest in music. KM would become quite an accomplished cellist. 

At this time the wealthy Beauchamp’s took a number of domestic summer holidays and rented cottages at places like Day’s Bay. I re-read the longish ‘At The Bay’ recently as a memorial to her time spent on summer holidays.  Important friendships were formed at this time around the turn of the century, that would later develop into strong romantic and sexual relationships- the Trowell twins, Garnet and Tom, highly accomplished musicians, and Maata, a dark-skinned Maori princess that KM met at a wealthier, more prestigious school in Fitzherbert Terrace. She also knew somebody called Edith Bendall and wrote about laying her head on her naked breast at the holiday house at Day’s Bay. Her yearning also extended to one of the English cricketers on board a ship KM was on, returning from her first trip to England. She refers to him as Adonis in her journal.

KM has such a restlessness for love and desire like any teenager from any time, but also for culture, literature, music. Her writing is dominated by ‘decadent’ influences like her favourite, Oscar Wilde, whose aphorisms she adored. She soaked up time in London where she studied during her formative years at Queen’s College on Harley Street-

Here she met her lifetime friend and ‘slave’, Ida Baker, also known as LM, for KM an emotional support until the very end. What an incredibly rich and fulfilling time she had at Queen’s College. It enabled her to study music (her beloved cello), practise her craft of writing, meet fascinating intellectuals and like-minded people she struggled to meet in Wellington. Once back home again when her education ‘finished’ she got into a real funk, angry with her family, her father in particular who held the purse strings, and becoming notorious for her moods and dissatisfaction. NZ was, it seemed, a stale city with little to offer (Kimber shows that intellectually, it was in fact quite rich for its size), but for the restless KM, pining for England, it was stuffy and provincial in the worst possible way. It did not fit in with her bohemian ways, her grandiose, modern thinking, her dreams of decadence and separateness. KM was establishing, in her own mind, the idea of having a career in writing as a modernist author, and Wellington seemed to dampen her ambitions.

Eventually she realised a way of getting around her father and gaining his support. At about 18 or 19 she eventually went back to London to pursue a new life, but not until after a camping holiday around the north island where she learned some valuable lessons about living a more practical life and learning how to peel potatoes, amongst other things.

Oh, how much she would have savoured getting on a boat again, escaping the stifling Wellington, and getting away from her father, except for his much- needed money, which was 100 pounds a year. And oh, how I can relate, right now, to the idea of getting on that boat and going once again to England and the promise of great adventure- Northumberland, Shropshire, Lakes District, Cornwall, Kent, Yorkshire, Cotswolds, Herefordshire, Devon, Wiltshire, Nottinghamshire…

She went back to England and eventually met John Middleton Murry and published short stories and created a deeply enriching life around her, inhabited by D H Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and many others. She never forgot New Zealand, though, which crept into her stories time and time again. There is something about memories of our youth, and how we can paint them somehow rosier in our minds. If there was some rosiness.


Thursday, November 14, 2019

The new Leunig controversy

I AM male, not female, and that might have something to do with the fact that I saw the baby and the phone before I saw the mother, in that recent cartoon by Leunig that somehow became controversial.

Put in simple terms, the mobile phone has become a scourge on society. Someday it will be recognised universally as such. At first, when I started seeing it everywhere, I looked on it with a sense of bemusement. ‘Is it really that interesting that it commands so much attention?’. Instead of buying one and wanting to find out, I decided I preferred to continue looking around me, reading a book, thinking. Sorting things out in my brain, but especially noticing things.
At some stage, it occurred to me that there are lots of things you can do with a phone. When I first saw everybody staring soullessly into the machine, I thought they were merely looking at Instagram posts or texting a friend or family member about the weather, or the food they recently ate, or about what happened last night. Looking over people’s shoulders (yes I do like to observe people and their behaviours), I have begun to realize there is a lot more to mobile phones than this. I have seen people playing games, using it as an application to find the whereabouts of some place, reading a book online, maybe even looking at The Age.

This has not, however, made me more interested in purchasing a phone or helped me see it as less dangerous or more benign. On the contrary, I can see how the myriad uses of it can trap people more and more into ignoring other people and their surroundings and act zombie-like for the duration of the day. Just walk in the city or catch a train or bus. They are there as extensions of nearly every persons’ hands. And we accept it as normal.

I welcome Leunig’s perspective. He often recognises awful aspects of society before others, or sometimes it is just putting into print what many of us already know. Yes, we are old-fashioned types. Perhaps types that would like to see mobile phones done away with. Or at least a mobile phone free day when every adult and child agrees to do something great for humanity and stores their phone away for 24 hours. I want to be able to catch a bus and have the experience I used to have. People reading or observing their surroundings, something that seems so lame but feels so fresh. And people crossing the road and walking along paths looking straight ahead, conversing in the car and in restaurants and in the schoolyard. And especially mothers and fathers pushing prams and conversing with their kids.

We have lost the battle. It feels permanent. When old people like me die out it won’t look odd to anyone. People will forget the integrating society. Just like we have all forgotten life before TV. It’s just that you have never carried a TV around with you, oblivious to all else, whilst you walk down the street.