Friday, March 12, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 15

Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes with two reformed Waggaists outside the Citadel.

Manly ferry.

The morning after the end of the war began with a sky castover and cold. The air was still. I woke early and went for a walk. Miles down the beach, I found the Waggaist’s duck-and-swan paddle-boats hidden among the mangroves under a large red canopy. Camouflage was clearly not one of their talents. I took a duck for a spin but the current was too strong. Sitting on the beach, I tried to make headway on a new poem, but it ended badly. Since accepting the job as war correspondent, my own writing had jumped bail. The muse had been, in Claire Gaskin’s words, “Spectored.”

Returning to the wharf, only one poet was up. Mark Strand was sitting on a cray trap, looking for all the world as though he’d just lost a loved one. I asked him what was wrong, and he said “I’ve just lost a loved one.” His top lip was doing a soft-shoe over his teeth. I offered what comfort I could from a rising tide of exhaustion and despair. “My dog is missing,” he said. I was about to tell him there’s often a big difference between dead and missing, when I heard a siren wail.

Out on the river, a 1950s Austin Sheerline ambulance on tapering pontoons was ploughing slowly through the slate-grey water. As it got closer I could see two men up front, waving and smiling. When it pulled into the wharf, a door opened and Ted Hughes stepped out. He was holding a badger in a leather vest, a plaited leather leash attached to its collar. He put the creature down onto the wharf and came to greet me. I wanted to tell him it was the first time I’d ever seen him smile, when the driver’s door opened and Philip Larkin jumped down. He was shielding his eyes, even though there was no sun. “We are here,” he said.

Bukowski came out of his cruiser wearing a souvenired Waggaist bandana. When he saw Hughes and Larkin, he said “Oh fuck, as if we didn’t have enough trouble on this goddam island.” Then he cracked open a beer and went off into the trees.

A loud banging was coming from the ambulance. “Phil, better let Possum out,” Hughes said. Larkin went to the big rear doors and pulled them open. T.S. Eliot stepped out and fell head-first into the river. He thrashed and cursed then, finding himself in less than two feet of water, stood wiping his face. “Are we there yet?” he asked. Larkin looked around. He saw the citadel. He pondered the many different kinds of craft at anchor. When he saw the large crowd of Waggaists inside the chicken wire cage, all wearing wire-mesh mouth guards, he said “I guess we’re a little late for the war.” Then he walked over to the ambulance and ran a hand over its roof. With an equal measure of menace and wonder, he said “All islands, in time, are visited.”

Hughes and Larkin had been visiting Brendan Behan in prison. Behan had heard that Samuel Beckett was in Australia, trying to find an island somewhere north of Sydney, and that a poetry war was about to take place. Behan said he was he was going to break out and travel to Australia to lend a hand. “He was pacing behind the table in the visiting room, cursing us,” Larkin said, the thick lenses of his glasses flashing. “He was convinced we were holding out on him.” Hughes picked up the badger and stroked its head. He spoke quietly: “At one point he came close and put his ear to my mouth. In his darkest Dublin accent, he told me it wasn’t the Liverpool docks he’d been intending to blow up when he was arrested - he’d only gone there to collect more explosives from a container - it was my study in Devon. ‘I’ll bomb you and your feckin crows, he said.’” The memory of the meeting was clearly too much for Larkin - a nerve below his left eye had started twitching, and it looked as though he were winking at me. “We told him we’d heard nothing, and the situation got worse,” Phil said, with a rising inflection. “I was on the verge of calling the guards.” “Eventually he calmed down,” said Hughes, “but only after we’d promised to let him know as soon as we heard anything.” “I emailed Beckett from the Hull library next day,” Larkin said. “I told him about Behan’s reaction, about what he’d whispered to Ted. Sam’s email came back immediately: ‘They court-martialed Behan in his absence, sentenced him in his absence, and no doubt they’ll execute him in his absence as well. Beware the cunning of the drinker with a writing problem.’” Larkin then explained how Sam had been delayed in Sydney after accepting an invitation to read at a private function at David Williamson’s house. He’d then given detailed directions to The Island, and said he’d be getting a water taxi as soon as the gig at Williamson’s was over. “He should be here soon,” Larkin said. Ted Hughes clicked his tongue at the badger, who looked at him through the twin stripes of shadow on its head, and clicked back. “Not the paradise I was expecting,” Hughes said, hands on his hips as he studied the beach and hill. “But we’ll make do.”

T.S. Eliot had wandered off. He was half-way up the hill towards the citadel, swatting at insects or invisible critics with his walking cane. I was tempted to call out to him, but let him go. There was no longer any hint of danger. The citadel was benign.

Larkin and Hughes were unpacking the ambulance. Blodgett and Stevens had emerged from the tall-ship and were blinking and stretching. The LIMP had well and truly worn off. Graham Nunn had caught a pardalote, and was showing Lisa Gorton the white tips on the ends of its wings. Eric Beach was trying to tell Hughes the difference between a little raven and a crow. The scene was calm. It was much like the first few days after our arrival: poets wandering around doing fuck-all, the smell of alcohol and hashish on the breeze, the Waggaists out of sight...

Later that day, this calm atmosphere would break open. The scene would be transformed into something dark and troubling. But right then The Island was a paradise.

I went to the Halvorsen and made a pink gin. I opened my notebook. Having left an open invitation on the deck for the muse to join me, I started writing. One uncertain stanza later, she came below like the stirrings of a zephyr, unpinned her hair and guided me into the poem.

I was incredibly weary. Reporting from the front was hard work and I needed to a break. I went back to my flat in Billyard Avenue Elizabeth Bay and slept for 15 hours. I woke to a breakfast of grapefruit and marmalade toast. Reluctantly I packed my Olivetti and set off for Brooklyn, where I'd lined up an interview with Berryman and Geoffrey Hill. I’d parked my convertible Jag outside my flat. Brett Whiteley saw my car and came over to say hello. He invited me around to his studio to see his new paintings. The jacarandas were in flower, the rainbow lorikeets flew noisily from tree to tree, and the ibis walked in a single file down the gutter towards where the Australian Navy moored its battleships.

It was a beautiful blue day and Brett was in a charming mood. I mentioned the poetry war on the Island. To my surprise, Whiteley said “Poetry war? What poetry war man?” I decided not to go into it. He would find out about the war and the Waggas before long. It was just a matter of time. Brett had been up the Cross looking for a friend, Michael Driscoll, who was a singer and an expert on the Symbolists. It turned out he couldn’t find this fellow - there’d been talk of smack and dealers, charcoal and Jean  Genet. Seeing that Whiteley had come by ferry, I suggested he come along with me. I was going over through the North side anyway.

I’d been at Whiteley’s studio for an hour or so, surrounded by his new paintings of the harbour. There was music playing and spirits were flowing. Brett’s wife Wendy said Driscoll had called on the phone and was on his way. “He’s been on his way for days. “He seems to vanish into the abyss without warning, then just appears as if no time at all has gone by. He’s drifting too far from the shore.” Brett offered some lunch - avocados and salad with tiger prawns. It was delicious. There was a knock on the door and a dishevelled young man with a guitar came into the studio. It was Michael Driscoll. “You’re two days late,” said Brett. Driscoll didn’t seem to hear and just put down his guitar and launched into an explanation of what had just happened to him on his way to Lavender Bay. He spoke in a casual tone of voice. “I was coming to see you. Catching public transport is such a drag, I missed two buses and a ferry. I was down at Circular Quay an hour ago, and the Manly Ferry was about to pull out. I looked up, and there in the bow section was a man who looked a bit odd. I looked again and realised it was William Blake. He was dressed in the same clothes he used to wear in London, the same apparel he wears in the portraits and etchings. This blew my mind! William Blake, standing there with the other commuters as if it were completely normal. I decided I had to talk to him. I ran down the gangplank and rushed over to the other wharf where William’s ferry was pulling out, but it was too late. The ferry churned the dirty waters of the Quay until they turned white and pulled out. William Blake was standing up on the deck looking over towards Fairy Bower. It was incredible. I was so bitterly disappointed. Oh man, I’m still freaked out. I need a hit to get over it, really Brett. Have you got a hit? I mean, fuck man, William Blake on the Manly Ferry, you wouldn’t fucking believe it. I mean if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes...”

I decided to leave before the needles came out. I drove off through the narrow streets draped with honeysuckle and jasmine, up the steep avenues of jacaranda trees, heading for the Pacific Highway. On the way I amused myself, thinking what was in store for the young Driscoll when W.B.Yeats hit Sydney Harbour fishing for Waggas with his gang of Immortals. It surprised me that the crew at Lavender Bay had been so cut off from the poetry war. They mustn’t have read the Sydney Morning Herald, as there’d  been a front page story. If Driscoll really was an expert on the Symbolists as Brett claimed, it would be interesting to see what happened when he came face to face with Mallarme and the rest of the poets recovering in the Anglers Rest.

At Brooklyn things were back to normal. I dropped into Ian’s bait shop before I went into the pub. Ian makes the best coffee in Brooklyn, and besides he always knows the latest news. He writes the fishing report for the Bush Telegraph and is plugged into all the fact and gossip. There’s usually a mixed crew in Ian’s shop. Today there was J.S. Harry, Vicki Viidikas and Gig Ryan. They were all talking about the way David Brooks was writing reviews of their latest books and using a vegan’s measure to judge them - every time the word meat was used he deducted a point; each time a pumpkin came up there was an extra point. David Brooks was getting the reputation as the man who was most against live-bait fishing,  against fishing in every aspect. Vicki said to Gig “It’s ridiculous. Who cares what David Brooks says anyway? Who cares what any critic says in some academic journal? It’s not much different with vampires. They suck the blood out of the poetry.” Jan Harry said “But he’s a vegan, he can’t stand blood.” “Exactly,” said Gig.

Jack Spicer walked in: "Well, what’s happening? I want some live bloodworms.” “I don’t sell them,” said Ian. “There’s no call for them in Brooklyn, they’re all Jewie-mad around here. Mulloway Madness. They only want live squid. “Well, then,” said Spicer “I’ll have to open my own baitshop. I’ll sell bait and listen to the game on the radio as the worms crawl out the door. I’ll sell live prawns, poddy mullet, blood worms, squirt worms, pink nippers, green nippers, crabs, green weed, anything that moves.

There was a disturbance at the door. “Adamson keeps saying he’s going to give up fishing for Jewies and take up fishing for whiting and bone fish. What the fuck is a bone-fish?” It was Bill Wisley, and he was reaching for a plank. Vicki said “You’re all mad, stark raving mad.”

K. Slessor, at the Front.

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