Last week I was writing about my brother and putting up poetry posters in Trenton, New Jersey. Then I went on to discuss prison and the catacombs below my apartment here in Princeton, New Jersey. I mentioned the interesting people one meets down there in the tunnels and I always write about the healing power of travel and facing the oncoming road. Nothing goes away unless one faces it and anxiety usually has an end, but I will never read poetry in public.
My brother died when I was fourteen as I mentioned. He tried to take a tractor up a ridge that was simply too much for him and the tractor. My father taught him how to drive farm vehicles when our family lived on a farm up the Pig Root near Ranfurly, Middlemarch, and Dunback in New Zealand. This is getting on towards Central Otago and is one of the most beautiful parts of Aotearoa. My dad was a tractor driver/farm labourer and my mum did the cooking for the men.
The Bell family owned the land (‘Shag Valley Station’ or ‘Bell Station’) and they were pretty good people. Our family moved to Dunedin when there were three kids at high school and I was born there. I’m proud of being born in Dunedin because it’s a great city. My Uncle Les lived with us and he was shell-shocked in WW2, maybe at Alamein where he was, but he was also in Greece at Mt Olympus and that was no picnic either. He could barely string a sentence together, but he was a hell of a guy and he used to laugh a lot. He was a real ‘moral compass’. Before the war he was in the merchant navy and my mum used to say that he had been in every prison in the world for drunkenness. Like I say one hell of a bloke and not a bad bone in his body. Give me a drunk with a moral compass over a sober psychopath any day.
My uncle Les was still able to work (he was the boilerman at Kempthorne Prossers, the big drug company) and he bought us our first television. He had a number of Ford V8s and Morris 8s which he couldn’t drive because of his “condition”. My brother used to drive them and take me out with him and I’d be standing on the seat screaming for us to go faster. Colin did drive faster and too much was never enough.
My sisters liked ‘safe’ pop music like Elvis Presley around the house, but my brother, he liked Jerry Lee Lewis. I am eternally grateful as you can imagine. My dad liked Hank Williams, William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell and that is better still. Those artists/writers all serve to give you no delusions about life and all it deals out. They help you face reality.
A couple of days ago it was Janet Frame’s birthday in New Zealand. I still get messed up with the International Date Line and I have no idea what comes first and I don’t really want to know. Someone, usually someone on Facebook, will tell me these things in some kind of lecturing tone when I go wrong. Like I say, in this life seven people will cheer for you to get ahead and three people will tell you where you are going wrong and they will desperately try and hold you back. It’s like they live for that. I faced all that on Russell Street, Dunedin when I was a kid and I still face it. But it’s better now. The only kind of freedom is internal, I reckon.
Anyway, Janet Frame. I have lived with Janet Frame all my life and she has always meant a lot to me. She came to mean even more about five or six years ago when I did my second course of interferon for Hepatitis C. At that point she got right into my bones and I’m sure she healed me even more than that horrendous drug did. Good literature will do that because it will tell you that you are never alone, not down in the catacombs, not ever. Not much can follow you when you are on interferon, but Janet Frame’s writing always did.
She often wrote about matters / situations / places / feelings of which I know well: the train station at Palmerston in Otago (another uncle of mine owned the dairy there – he was the family success story), family dynamics, Oamaru, Carroll Street in Dunedin, Seacliff, the Occidental Hotel in Christchurch, the fear of putting your hand out to be published and so on and so forth. And sometimes just the general Fear. The scenario at the mental hospital in ‘Gorse is Not People’ I feel, having spent some time in both Cherry Farm and Sunnyside trying to drop a nefarious junk habit in the 1970s. When I read her writing I can feel and smell the walls in Seacliff. I’ve often been to the sea there and gazed out. Loneliest place on earth I reckon and I can still hear the sobs, every time a coconut.
A lot of people seem to have distorted views of writers, celebrities and recording artists and they write of them, and they review (now there’s a word) them and often they are destructive as well. They sometimes hurt sensitive people to the core and I myself have been hurt deeply, even though I’m not suggesting I am a writer, a celebrity or an artist. I’m just a song and dance man. Bridgette Bardot got to the stage where she was disgusted with the whole human race and then she never went out. It’s an act of courage to ‘go out’ and sometimes it’s not easy doing my washing down in the catacombs either.
I think Janet Frame was just shy and she couldn’t stand all the palaver. I’m with her. I also think Jerry Salinger was probably the same and Thomas Pynchon as well. These people often attract others who are overly interested and who pry and want, somehow, to suck on their success. They usually go looking for bad things and, lo and behold, they find them. There’s money in shit. I myself am guilty of prying as I have been up Jerry Salinger’s driveway (when he was alive) and I have had his wife scowl at me. I guess we are all guilty as we want something they have. I’d give my right arm to be able to write half as good as Janet Frame.
Anyway, here I am in America and I’m busy putting up poetry posters. I love it and if I don’t put up posters during a day then I figure that I really haven’t done well. I haven’t gone out there and shaken my fist at the sky and just thought, “you know, fuck it…it’s not El Alamein”.
I’d hate to end up like some of these Americans and Kiwis who sit on the couch suffering from celebriphilia and eating donuts and hurling abuse at the screen when Lindsay Lohan (or, pick a name) comes on. I don’t want to be one of these dudes who thinks they can write better poetry than Bob Dylan and didn’t he just copy it, anyway? Also, I don’t hate the US government nor any government and I’m not here to blow smoke up your ass. I just do what I do and, as my Uncle Les could sometimes struggle to get out, “worse things happen at sea”.
He was right and there was a man.
Thank you Kemo Sabe.
A Tinker’s Cuss started life on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page – it’s a new feature here at Off The Tracks and we’re repeating the earliest posts before carrying on with new words from Jim Wilson.