In December and January I put finishing touches to my novel God of Speed. During this time I liked the fact that Los Angeles at last got crisp, especially at night. I had been there eight months and thought it was all just endless Truman Show, climate-controlled. But LA winter reminded me a little of winter in Sydney, the blue-sky days, the tang in the air, a pale and dreamy sun, and the drop at night. Then in February I went to the 4th Festival Internacional de Poesia de Granada, in Nicaragua, a beautiful experience I might get around to writing about. On March 1 I left LA, mostly to promote the novel's release in Australia, and do the Auckland and Sydney Writers' Festivals. I'll return to LA on July 1, so it feels I've been living out of a suitcase for four months. Lots of adventures, tempered by a destabilising sense of transience. Probably I wouldn't swap it though. My French publishers will publish God of Speed but no sale yet to an American or British publisher. I turned up in Paris a couple of weeks ago, off the plane and straight to my publishers' apartment, and checked my email to see one from Festival & Co, the small but excellent literary festival run out of the Shakespeare & Co bookshop. Antonia Fraser had had to pull out, due to her husband Harold Pinter's sudden hospitalization, and could I possibly do a replacement panel that day at 4pm? (It was 9am when I read the email; I had just flown for 24 hours.) Defenses clearly down from early-onset jetlag, I said Yes, why not? and dutifully trotted myself out, seven strange hours later. It was one of those memorably hallucinated jetlagged events, in that now, two weeks later, I remember only fragments, as if from a particularly fractured dream. I met the English philosopher AC Grayling in the green room, and liked him very much. He did a session the next day on Descartes. He was an elegant speaker without notes, and it was absolutely fascinating, but he was clearly one of those people who could speak on any topic and deeply hold one's interest and attention, jetlagged and all. Bill Maidment, a lecturer at Sydney University, was like that. I was one of many who understood, by second year, that the smart thing to do, regarding Maidment, was to take whatever course(s) he was offering, no matter how odd the subject matter. It increased one's chances of getting good marks in the exams, because the learning had been rather effortless, but more than that, it increased one's pleasure at being young, alive, and a vessel capable of taking on more knowledge. Or rather: more wonder.
The following week, the Festival Franco-Anglais de Poésie, which takes place every summer in the Marché de Poésie (where else but France?) in the Place St Sulpice, contacted me to say that the Australian poet Phillip Hammial had taken ill (I hope he is better), and could I take his place in the Saturday reading? Well yes, why not? So I definitely felt like the replacement guy in Paris, and tried to work out what that might mean. Nothing, really, I suppose. But I liked the coincidence.
Now I am in New York for a few days. Balmy late June nights. Strolling along on the lower west side tonight, I saw a small, discrete graffiti: I FEEL SEX. Barely noticeable, on a door in a recessed doorway I passed. "I feel sex." Yes, indeed. As one does. I liked how, with the addition of a simple "Y", it would have been banal, unworthy of reporting; but that the missing "Y" suddenly meant a proliferation of meanings, some of them interesting. I felt instinctively -- perhaps it was something to do with the handwriting -- that there was some pathological blend of yearning and pain in the person who actually wrote it, but that the statement itself, away from the context of its composition, was grandly humourous, erotic in its bluntness, and mischievous in a balmy June way.
This brought to mind the three memorable (that word again) instances of graffiti that have somehow stayed with me through my life.
The first from childhood. I visited someone recently on the leafy north shore of Sydney, near where I had grown up, and I suddenly remembered a graffiti that had deeply intrigued me between about the ages of about eight and eleven, decades ago. I think it was on a railway bridge somewhere near Gordon Station. It said simply:
ANGEL YOU HAVE DIED IN VAIN
What I'd give, still now, as I would have, then, to know, even vaguely, what it might have been about.A Google search is no help at all.
The second: for many years, through the early nineties, along the stormwall at the southern end of Bondi Beach, was, in enormous white hand-painted (not spray-painted) lettering, the word "ALDO". This in itself was non-eventful. The stroke of genius was the day I saw it had been added to, in an equally large, but now spray-painted hand, and in a noticeably different script. It now read:
ALDOUS HUXLEY WOULD HAVE LOVED BONDI
I was excited by this, and I saw it every day for years. I somehow thought it was a Doors of Perception reference, because there's that wildness in the air at Bondi, where the ocean meets the land, and the sky is charged with a kind of salt-sparkling electricity. That graffiti was there for a good long time, but eventually the council did a graffiti cleanup of the stormwall. They should have hewed that phrase in granite.
The third one, I saw in Dublin around 1998, on a clean white wall. The first huge line, with its initial capitals seeming to set forth its declamatory intent:
KATHLEEN -- Dog-biter blondie hoor
and then the second line, a little meeker, preceded by that beautiful innocuous ellipsis:
.... and I don't like her any moor....
If there's anger here -- and I imagine there may well have been, in the beginning in any case -- it's offset, it's defused somehow, by the almost linguistic lilt of its humour. And who could not love that hoor/moor rhyme?
Then on the plane from Paris to New York, I wrote three poems. I love those bursts on planes. Such a nice bubble, in which poems arrive that seemingly don't carry with them the usual DNA, or rather, the usual trusses and supporting beams. Not sure this is a habit I would want to get into regularly, but for no particular reason, here is one of them.
MYTHIC SACRIFICES IN THE FRIENDLY SUMMER
Another airport, another bull to be slaughtered.
I had changed greatly in a personal decade
but little in eleven thousand years.
When I saw bulls I saw red and felt a kinship
with necessity. I felt very relaxed knowing
the world was overflowing with procedure, even in
its younger phase. One gave one thing to get
in turn another. Seeing red was like seeing
the future, the sliding of the blade, and I felt
much closer to God. Sunny times, old Memory.
Mithra didn't know shit from clay.
I liked my own communion in the desert:
felt I was onto something, and that if I just
concentrated hard enough, I could invent a tradition
of stillness. The hummingbird makes the hum.
But every time I travelled I would see, many and fierce,
bulls no one else could see, unnerving in their defiant
love of fate. One cornered me in the Men's Room.
Again that moment: you must change your life.
I buried him later high in a tree.
A final point. I find myself these days so utterly entranced by Borges, and I loved reading, in Alberto Manguel's short memoir With Borges, the anecdote about Borges, that austere, well mannered, perfectly dressed old gentleman, blind or nearly blind by now, saying, gently, to an unruly child, "If you behave, I'll give you permission to think of a bear."