To eat flowers

Unknown

 

 

 

 

 

 

voices to voices, lip to lip
i swear (to noone everyone) constitutes
undying; or whatever this and that petal confutes . . .
to exist being a peculiar form of sleep

what’s beyond logic happens beneath will;
nor can these moments be translated: i say
that even after April
by God there is no excuse for May

bring forth your flowers and machinery: sculpture and prose
flowers guess and miss
machinery is the more accurate, yes
it delivers the goods, Heaven knows

(yet are we mindful, though not as yet awake,
of ourselves which shout and cling, being
for a little while and which easily break
in spite of the best overseeing)

i mean that the blond absence of any program
except last and always and first to live
makes unimportant what i and you believe;
not for philosophy does this rose give a damn . . .

bring on your fireworks, which are a mixed
splendor of piston and pistil; very well
provided an instant may be fixed
so that it will not rub, like any other pastel.

(While you and i have lips and voices which
are for kissing and to sing with
who cares if some oneeyed son of a bitch
invents an instrument to measure Spring with?

each dream nascitur, is not made . . .)
why then to Hell with that: the other; this,
since the thing perhaps is
to eat flowers and not to be afraid.
e.e. cummings or Edward Estlin Cummings

Prescript: Since posting the first part of this work, In a Minute There is Time, I have had many discussions on memory. The theories of Heidegger, Popper, Wittgenstein have been invoked. But I will not be drawn into the pomp and ceremony of philosophy. All these memories, whether borrowed or invented, stolen or remembered, are mine.

What is your first memory? How far back can you remember? Is it a memory or construction created from family stories, photographs or even wishful thinking? When asked my first memory, here is the story that I tell.

I am perhaps five, very young. I am in my pyjamas, and supposed to be in bed. But the noise in our little apartment (we used to call them flats) in Elizabeth Bay has woken me and I have tiptoed to the door of the little living room. My parents are holding a party. The small space is jammed with people. There is loud music playing and the air is, no doubt – it is not part of my memory, I’m filling in the gaps ¬– heavy with cigarette smoke. I am wide-eyed at my glimpse into the adult world. And then I see him. An American sailor, capless, white uniform, blue neck scarf, on the floor, eating flowers, I think lilies, from a vase. Some back story is needed.

This is 1950/51. My mother, Gloria, is a city slicker, a journalist and as I gathered was then something of a bohemian. She became a journalist during the war when so many of the men were fighting. She worked on the Daily Telegraph at that time, but had also, at some stage in her early life, been a model. She was a very attractive woman. Her friends include the poet Kenneth Slessor, the actor Chips Rafferty and others I can only vaguely recall. My father, on the other hand, was from the bush. Born in the tiny town of Natimuk in Western Victoria, graduated from Dookie Agricultural College in Victoria, then worked as a station manager around the country and then, was only just back from the war. He was in the RAAF, a Spitfire pilot, Flight Lieutenant in 457 Squadron, saw action over France and then Darwin. The dashing pilot and the glamorous journo. My mother had lived in and around Kings Cross and Elizabeth Bay since coming to Sydney from Springwood in the Blue Mountains where she had grown up with her mother and stepfather.

So the party was probably real. The smoky room. The bottles of beer. The cheap gin. The scratchy radio. The loud voices. But the sailor eating flowers? As clearly as my adult self can see this, I am sure it was a story told often, to friends, to illustrate the wild youth of my parents. More interestingly why did I retain this story and take it for my own. What does ‘eating flowers’ mean’? Now, at the risk of being accused of gilding the lily – or the lotus ¬– I’m going to examine this image closely.

The most famous of flower eaters were the sailors on Odysseus’/ Ulysses’ ship. This is how Homer tells the tale:

I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of 9 days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.

Of the flowers themselves, there are several candidates with Ziziphus lotus, a relative of the jujube being the most accepted. But when I looked at those candidates, I wondered why Nymphaea caerulea, also known as the blue lotus (already known under this name to the Greeks), is not the preferred candidate. It can be processed to be used as a soporific and, in some formulations, has psychotropic properties. One site, Nuerosoup says that:

Recent studies have shown Nymphaea caerulea to have psychoactive properties, and may have been used as a sacrament in ancient Egypt and certain ancient South American cultures. Dosages of 5 to 10 grams of the flowers induces slight stimulation, a shift in thought processes, enhanced visual perception, and mild closed-eye visuals.

So why Ziziphus lotus, which is a medicinal plants which modulates antioxidant activity and human T-cell proliferation rather than gives a high is the most favoured candidate, I have no idea.

If I am right, then, lotus-eating signifies the lure of indulgence, a preference for pleasure and drugged escapism. The same motif is to be seen in Joyce’s Lotus-Eaters, Episode 5 in Ulysses.

My first memory, then, is a warning or an admonition or a prediction that I will be tempted by pleasure, narcotics and self-indulgence. Guilty as charged. I have taken drugs, have indulged in lotus-eating both at home and for some years in the village of Deià on the island of Mallorca, one of the planet’s flower munching capitals. But something always saved me from succumbing entirely. Very briefly I will re-tell the story of an important drug episode on the island.

With a friend I set off one morning to do some work on another friend’s small house on the coast. We were going to plaster his walls, a boring job. So before we left, to alleviate the dreariness of the task, we each took a half tablet of lysergic acid, believing it to meek and mild. It was not, and we soon found ourselves reeling with the effect of a very heavy dose of the drug. In such a state we traversed the narrow paths along the cliffs of the coast with some difficulty, owing to the fact that rock faces which we had to lean against in order to stop from crashing to the sea below had, on that day, a tendency to pulsate, to writhe, to kaleidoscope alarmingly, pink and green and living rocks, filled at times with arms and legs, serpents and songbirds; the sea a crazy sparkling amorphous presence, swelling, racing towards a point between itself and the sky, the very path under our feet wobbling, more like rubber than the solid stuff it really was. For me it was necessary to poke at the ground with a walking stick, itself somewhat rubbery, to reassure me of the firmness of the land beneath my feet.

And it was in that way that I re-assured myself that this was just a drug, and its effects would go away, and that I was not mad. I have always been able to find a such a walking stick to get me back to reality and to keep me on the straight and narrow, no matter how appealing the bent and wide.

So Cummings tells us that:

since the thing perhaps is
to eat flowers and not to be afraid

Along the way he assures us that ‘what’s beyond logic happens beneath will’ and that:

(While you and i have lips and voices which
are for kissing and to sing with
who cares if some oneeyed son of a bitch
invents an instrument to measure Spring with?

 

So Mr Cummings is pleading the case for romance, for eating the lotus in the open. For not fearing indulgence, pleasure, the soma for using our lips and voices for the right purpose and for feeling rather than measuring. Which is fine and well and good. But we must always take a sturdy walking stick to make contact with the earth. Otherwise we may well lose our bearings and our moorings.

bring forth your flowers and machinery: sculpture and prose
flowers guess and miss
machinery is the more accurate, yes
it delivers the goods, Heaven knows

s

All this from a memory, perhaps my first, or perhaps one implanted by an oft-told family story. Even so I like what memory researcher Martin Conway says: ‘ memories are psychological representations and not like photographs, videos or other types of recordings.’ I have not been afraid to eat flowers. Although these days, I stick to forget-me-nots.

Nymphaea caerulea, my preferred candidate for the lotus eaters lotus

Nymphaea caerulea, my preferred candidate for the lotus eaters lotus

 

In a minute there is time

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In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions that a minute will reverse.

T S Eliot, The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock

 

How well do you remember your life? How do you remember your life? Has the way you remember your life shaped it? How real are your memories? Are your memories visual? These are some of the questions I’ve been pondering recently. Why?

Having just finished a three year work, I find myself as I usually find myself when I have finished something long and deeply absorbing at a loss, empty and not so much depressed as bereft. That thing that filled my days (what are days for?) has gone, a kind of death.

And in that state, with very little in the way of work to keep me distracted, I began to think about my life, that life which is heading for the neon exit sign. And, as I am a writer, I thought I should write about it. But what? Not another (fucking) memoir. Not another – what are they called in academia? – life story. I mulled. And mulled.

It is difficult for me. You see, my memory is not your standard chronological measured out in coffee spoons life.

It is more a series of vignettes, flashes, video clips. Just now, as I write this, I had a vivid image of my mother swimming at Camp Cove, and the little dog – not ours but a neighbour’s, he adopted us – swimming out to save her. Tigger – the dog – was worried about my mother being in the water. It became a story told over and over again. And perhaps, like many of my memories, it is not: a memory that is, but the memory of a family story grown to legendary status. Like the first entry in this book. But I digress. This is not going to be about the source of memories. But the memories themselves. And their impact upon my life.

You see, as I began to mull over my life, it occurred to me that there were a series of these memory clips attached to important turning points in my life. Decisive moments. Not that I necessarily understood that at the time ­– except for one and we will get to that – but they are among the most vivid of my memories. And then I had the form for this book.

A series of these clips in more or less chronological order which will explain me to myself and me to you reading this and, hopefully and more importantly, you to yourself.

Because as I began to think on these moments, I began to realise that many were more than decisive, they were defining. They made me who I am today, for better or often for worse.

But there is much debate on memory and history. In The New York Times Jill Ker Conway wrote:

Whether we are aware of it or not, our culture gives us an inner script by which we live our lives. The main acts for the play come from the way our world understands human development; the scenes and key characters come from our families and socialization, which provide the pattern for investing others with emotional significance; and the dynamics of the script come from what our world defines as success or achievement.

I’d go a little further and say that, in my case, I’m not sure whether my inner script, which I have characterised as memory clips, has been chosen by my subconscious to give meaning to my life, to shape it, to determine how I react to the world around me. Or is that exactly what Ms Conway is saying? Whatever, as the irritating modern world would reply.

And one more thing. As a writer, and specifically in my fiction, I often cannot distinguish between an invention and reality. Am I alone here? Did I invent that scene with my mother and my father fighting, late at night, or did I remember it?

I believe wholeheartedly in serendipity, especially as it affects my writing. But whether a serendipitous event comes about because of an idea already implanted or whether it is placed in front of me by the writer’s god (Ganesha), who knows? As Jung writes in his foreword to the I Ching, the Book of Changes:

The ancient wisdom of the East lays stress upon the fact that the intelligent individual realizes his own thoughts, but not in the least upon the way in which he does it.

In this instance, the serendipitous event was coming across a poem from Edward Estlin Cummings, a poet I have not read for years. The poem was mentioned in a review of a book by the (by now) late Clive James. Its significance will become obvious to you once you begin this book. TO BE CONTINUED

 

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From the Lighthorse to the Air Force. A short portrait of my father

IMG_1232In 1981, I went on a long trip with my father, John Newton, to visit the sites of his dreaming. None of these was more important to both of us than our visit to Natimuk, where he was born and grew up.

Natimuk was one of the first words I’d heard as a small boy (another, because I grew up in then cosmopolitan Kings Cross, was gorgonzola). Natimuk was a magic place, where the Lockwoods and the Sidholzs lived, where my grandfather, named John like me and my father, lived, and owned a pub and had a horse yard and went to King Island for the pheasant season, and whose photograph, long of mustache and strangely sad of eye (and big of nose like my father but not like me) was always taken with a gun in his hand and  dead birds at his feet.

One incident from that trip in 1982 stands out more than any other. We stayed at a hotel at Horsham, and drove in to Natimuk early one morning. As we walked around, Dad pointed out to me where he’d climbed a fence to pinch fruit; the remnants of the horse yards behind the hotel; where he’d swum in the lake; where various friends and relatives had lived; and finally we arrived at a house where his music teacher had lived. It looked occupied.

Dad decided to knock on the door. It was opened by this bright eyed old lady who looked up at my father – then about 68, he’d last learnt piano at the age of 12 – and said “Little Johnny Newton, how lovely to see you.” Then she put on her face a mock frown and added “I hope you’ve kept up your practice.”

This marvellous woman and her sister – they must have been in their nineties – then invited us in and we had tea and little yellow cakes with pink icing. I can’t remember their names, other than they were German, as many names in Natimuk were.

After he left Dookie, my father worked on a property belonging to the Wood family, Borak, on the Murray, Til Til at Balranald and later managed Wuttagoona, near Cobar in NSW. When war threatened, he joined the 2nd Cavalry division of the Lighthorse, but soon realised there’d be no cavalry in that war. So he joined the air force.

On finishing his training, he was assigned to a Spitfire squadron, 457, and painted a Pegasus on the side of his aircraft to signify his leap from the saddle to the cockpit. Luckily for me, he missed the Battle of Britain by catching mumps on the way (he was in the same hospital ward in Iceland as Evelyn Waugh, similarly afflicted), but saw action over Europe before being posted back to Darwin.

Recently, I found a book called Darwin Spitfires (details below). I remember picking it up and it fell open on a photograph of my father, sharing a beer with his squadron detail from which is at the top of this post. Now, Dad very rarely spoke of his time as a Spitfire pilot, at least not with his family. I’m sure on Anzac Day with his old mates, like Don Maclean and Clive ‘Killer’ Caldwell, they flew again, shooting Zeroes from the skies. This book was a revelation. It outlined, in heart stopping detail, some of my father’s activities. Let me run briefly through one such.

‘Flight Lieutenant John ‘Snapper’ Newton followed Watson into the attack, holding position on his right (‘snapper’ was the RAF reporting term for German fighters, and was thus a satirical reference, an in-joke within the squadron). Newton found the dive very steep and was thus doing 350 knots IAS by the time he opened fire  at the leader of the left hand vee [formation of Japanese bombers], also firing a difficult high-deflection shot. At such a closing speed, he only had time for a two-second burst, and did not see any strikes. Ceasing fire at 70 metres, he pulled hard, flashed over the top of the bombers, then rolled over and dived underneath them once he was clear.’

I read recently that it is a tragedy of life that we only get to know our parents in their decline. This was my father at the peak of his powers. That one sentence, ‘flashed over the top of the bombers’ conveys such an atmosphere of bravado, I am in awe of the man I read about here, and elsewhere.  There are other encounters in the book, some very hairy indeed. And I  never knew he was called Snapper.

It was while  he was on leave in Sydney from Darwin that he met my mother, Gloria Larsen, a journalist and confirmed city slicker. They married, I arrived, we lived in Kings Cross and then Double Bay, and Dad had to sublimate his longing for the bush by taking a job selling tractors (mainly for Brown & Dureau) and travelling around the countryside talking to farmers. I went with him on many of these trips, and even as a small boy I noticed that he changed as soon as we crossed the Great Divide. He talked more and his smiles grew more frequent and wider. When my mother’s Danish-born father died, he took over the family business, Australian Leathergoods, and ran that happily until he retired and sold it in 1993. My mother died in 1976, but he never re-married.

As Elsie Lange, a Natimuk resident and contemporary of my father with whom I kept up a correspondence until her death pointed out in one of her letters, Dad was terribly excited and proud when Brigette Muir, a local, climbed Mt Everest. His thoughts were often of Natimuk towards the end of his life, and he desperately wanted to go back for the last Back to Natimuk celebrations (I was to drive him) but he was just not well enough to travel.

His final years were plagued by emphysema, and for the last five years, every breath had been a struggle. Death truly was a release for him from the burden of breathing.

After his death, I cleaned out his flat. One day, I saw something hanging on the back door that I had never noticed before. A tea towel of a bush scene with the legend “Greetings from Natimuk.” He would have seen that every day.

Darwin Spitfires by Anthony Cooper published by NewSouth

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