Pride and Prejudice is celebrating two hundred years of publication. Everyone’s been talking talking about it: The Listener Book Club where they were self-declared ‘Jane Austen virgins’; The Slate Book Club where someone was reading it to his daughter, and in The Telegraph, a video clip of Chawton where Jane Austen wrote it. ‘I think if there were to be a fire, we’d all rush to save the table,’ says the curator, and the camera moves slowly towards a demure round table and a quill pen.
The quill makes me think of a blotter – according to Jane Austen’s nephew  she hid her writing beneath her blotting paper – only her family knew she was writing novels; she had to be prepared for all kinds of interruptions – no room of her own, but consequentially perhaps, a porous ear for every conversational nuance.
Another woman on the video reads from a letter to her sister Cassandra: ‘“Today, I want to tell you that I’ve got my own darling child from London.” Her own darling child,’ the curator intones, ‘is of course her book.’ Someone else says how simple her plots are and how relevant. ‘Look at how they’ve taken to Jane in Bollywood.’
Jane Austen is always ‘Jane’; her devotees are ‘Janeites’; you wonder how she’d feel to be ‘Jane’ to these long-range adorers, considering how important names are to her. Even the disingenuously named Frank Churchill, in Emma, one of the few men always to be called by his whole name, is offended by the way Mrs Elton addresses Jane Fairfax: ‘“Jane,” indeed!’ he says to Emma. ‘You will observe that I have not yet indulged myself in calling her by that name, even to you.’
I didn’t know this was the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, but in January I was driving to Auckland from Hawkes Bay and listened to it in the car. I’ve won two things in my life – a block of dairy milk chocolate in standard six (for getting the Catechism questions right) and a tin of assorted classics on CD a few years ago. The CDs are good when you’re crawling behind cattle trucks on winding roads.
‘I dearly love a laugh,’ Lizzy Bennet says to Miss Bingley and Darcy in the drawing room at Netherfield. I do too. Pride and Prejudice is very funny. I thought it was funny when I first read it at school, when I discovered the obvious comics, and over the years, others have amused me as much as walking, witty Lizzy. But the more you read the other novels, the more you realise that even though fun and being ‘diverted’ is a constant seam throughout them all, there is a corollary to that sentence: ‘I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.’
I suppose the pleasure I get from reading the novels now is cumulative. It’s hard now to think of one without remembering the others, and sensing a pattern at work, sometimes apparent, sometimes veiled, but always present. Her sentences are perfectly formed and perfectly in tune – they’re like the music of Mozart where you might be seduced by the ripple of the piano and miss (at first) the oboes wailing beneath. There is humour and delight but there is also sadness, grief and criticism, and within the exploration of emotional states, artistry: the ‘fine brush’ on ‘two inches of ivory.’
Miss Bates in Emma is one of my favourite characters. Each time I read her, I want to be her – want to read her words aloud because they are so funny, and at her dottiest, I know we are rather alike – I have an inordinate capacity for trivia.
Here she is preparing to read a letter from Jane Fairfax to Emma in Chapter XIX:
And since you are so kind as to wish to hear what she says – but, first of all, I really must, in justice to Jane, apologize for her writing so short a letter, only two pages, you see, hardly two, and in general she fills the whole paper and crosses half. My mother often wonders that I can make it out so well. She often says when the letter is first opened, ‘Well, Hetty, I think you will be well put to it to make out all that checker-work’ – don’t you madam? And then I tell her I am sure she would contrive to make it out herself, if she had nobody to do it for her, every word of it; I am sure she would pore over it till she had made out every word. And, indeed, though my mother’s eyes are still not so good as they were, she can still see amazingly well with the aid of spectacles. It is such a blessing! My mother’s are really very good indeed. Jane often says when she is here, ‘I am sure, grandmamma, you must have had very strong eyes to see as you do – so much fine work as you have done too! I only hope my eyes may last me as well.’
We never get to hear the letter, although throughout the chapter Miss Bates tells us we are about to: ‘I am going to have the pleasure of reading it to you’, ‘but we shall presently see in Jane’s letter’, ‘as you will hear presently’, “as I am going to read”, and finally, and brilliantly: ‘Well, now I have just given you a hint of what Jane has written about, we shall turn to her letter.’ But Emma has had enough and off she skips.
I think it’s possible to argue that of all Emma’s failings in the novel, her ridicule of Miss Bates at the picnic is the one we can’t laugh at. Snobbish Emma for discouraging Harriet from considering Robert Martin, blind Emma for not realising Mr Elton really fancies her or that Frank Churchill is using her as a front for his secret wooing – all these situations have elements of humour which Jane Austen exploits remorselessly, but cruel Emma for exposing Miss Bates at the picnic:
‘Oh!’ exclaimed Miss Bates… ‘I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I?’ looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on everyone’s assent.
Emma could not resist.
‘Ah!’ ma’am, but there will be a difficulty. Pardon me, but you will be limited as to the number – only three at once.’
It is such a loaded occasion – has been much looked forward to but from the start everything goes wrong – there was ‘a languor, a want of spirits, a want of union which could not be got over.’ It’s this sense of separateness and boredom which makes Emma behave so badly.
Miss Bates is Emma’s opposite: ‘poor, sunk from the comforts she was born to; and if she live till old age, must probably sink more.’ No wonder Mr Darcy rebuked Emma. No wonder Emma ‘felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates?’
I’ve recently read an essay by Virginia Woolf about films, or The Cinema as she entitled it. It was written in 1928 when you could say film had far to go, but much of what she wrote then seems still to hold true. She writes of the disjuncture between eye and brain when we watch a film: ‘The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things without bestirring itself to think.’ She uses Anna Karenina as an example of what happens. The eye says, ‘Here is Anna Karenina.’ A voluptuous lady in black velvet wearing pearls comes between us. But the brain says, ‘That is no more Anna Karenina than it is Queen Victoria.’ For the brain knows Anna Karenina almost entirely by the inside of her mind – her charm, her passion, her despair. All the emphasis is laid by the cinema upon her teeth, her pearls and her velvet…Eye and brain are torn ruthlessly asunder as they vainly try to work in couples.’
So when I read the title of Tim Upperton’s article (Listener Mar 2:) entitled Fortune Hunter: The soundtrack throughout Pride and Prejudice is the jingle of pounds, shillings and pence I thought of Virginia Woolf’s essay. Apart from fortune hunter, soundtrack jangled – was this going to be about the novel or the movie? The piece was accompanied by three photographs from the BBC series.
He begins with that famous opening sentence, so we know he means the novel, and swiftly declares that ‘all of Pride and Prejudice – all of Jane Austen, in fact – is contained in it.’ He builds a case for Elizabeth’s underlying motives: even though she’s funnier, cleverer, more aware than her mother, her sisters or her friend, it’s actually seeing Pemberly that makes her change her mind about Darcy, and she admits as much to Jane after she and Darcy have married. He concludes by arguing that Elizabeth, and by extension, Jane Austen, believes that ‘in matrimonial affairs, there is no difference between the mercenary and the prudent motive’, and that this attitude has formed the basis of every Mills and Boons novel ever after.
His summary is perfectly compatible with what happens to our judgment when a novel becomes a film. Indeed, he blames Colin Firth for not allowing us to see what a ‘complete arse’ Darcy really is. Perhaps when he was writing, he glanced at the film again and his ‘eye and brain were torn ruthlessly asunder as they vainly tried to work in couples.’ There was Colin, brooding, wet and irresistible in the water. Was this really the same man who said there was no one in the room tolerable enough for him to dance with?
These days we can’t read Pride and Prejudice without having the film in our heads. But, films and television series are finished within a few hours, and off we go to have a latte. We can’t do with them what Elizabeth does with a letter (and by extension a book): ‘When she had gone through the whole letter, though scarcely knowing anything of the last page or two, she put it hastily away, protesting that she would not regard it, that she would never look at it again…But it would not do. In half a minute the letter was unfolded again.’ Elizabeth walks in the grove for two hours ‘reading and rereading’ (my italics), and how her responses change. At first she reads ‘with a strong prejudice’, ‘an eagerness which hardly left her power of comprehension’, but then ‘she began the mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham and commanded herself to examine the meaning of every sentence.’ She ‘reads and rereads with the closest attention’ and becomes ‘absolutely ashamed of herself’ until finally acknowledging that she had been ‘blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.’ ‘Til this moment I never knew myself,’ she declares. The tenor of Darcy’s letter might not reflect well on him, but its sentiments act upon Elizabeth’s heart and mind – they cannot be denied.
I suggest that both her and Emma’s moments of self-awareness are as profound as Hamlet’s, ‘There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow…the readiness is all’, or Macbeth’s, ‘I am in blood / stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’
In fact, Virginia Woolf links Jane Austen and Shakespeare in A Room of One’s Own: she writes that ‘the minds of both had consumed all impedients; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare. If Jane Austen suffered in any way from her circumstances it was in the narrowness of life that was imposed upon her…it was the nature of Jane Austen not to want what she had not. Her gift and her circumstances matched each other completely…’
I wonder if Jane Austen was as serene as Virginia Woolf would have us believe, or that Tim Upperton’s suggestion that her attitude to marriage beats to the jingle of pounds, shillings and pence. Yes, Elizabeth marries Darcy and yes, she is charmed by Pemberley. But Darcy’s letter changes her; reading and reflection deepen her – she becomes less judgmental, more insightful. She is rewarded, but not just because she is lively, but because she has arrived at a moral and emotional maturity, crossed a moral river unaided – she was certainly not helped by her feckless parents, but that’s another story.
Darcy too has altered. For someone as disdainful of the Bennets as he undoubtedly was at first, he spares no effort in tracking down Lydia and Wickham, pays off the latter’s debts, buys him a commission and forces them to marry. And this achieved so discreetly that Elizabeth’s uncle must pretend to have effected the couple’s social restoration. If this is accomplished as a prelude to another proposal to Elizabeth, it is hardly from a mercenary motive: ‘Her heart did whisper that he did it for her.’ Tim Upperton wishes we see more of Wickham, but no matter how beguiling he appears, Wickham is, to borrow Tim’s own phrase, ‘a complete arse.’ He lies about his past, almost seduces Darcy’s sister, actually seduces Lydia – ‘Tell Sally [the maid] to mend a great slit in my muslin gown’ – and must be frog-marched into marriage which was never his intention.
The jingle of coinage is undoubtedly heard, but consider life if you were a poor eighteenth century woman. Miss Bates is in Emma not just to make us laugh. Jane Fairfax’s future is decidedly uncertain. Mrs Smith in Persuasion is an impoverished sick widow who can’t walk, never goes out and is reduced to making pin cushions for those poorer than herself. In Sense and Sensibility Mrs Dashwood is thrown out of her house because of a legal entailment – no wonder Mrs Bennet is worried about her daughters’ futures, Mr Bennet being too inert to leave his library to find a way of augmenting his income. Similarly, the wages of sin are high. Once Mr Collins hears about Lydia, he writes to Mr Austen advising him to cast her off forever – the man’s too comical to be a complete arse, but his views were commonplace. In Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram is banished by her family to ‘another country’ for living with Henry Crawford, and let’s not forget Mrs Clay, another impoverished solitary woman in Persuasion who will probably be cast off once William Elliot tires of her.
Happy marriage is rare in Austenland. The Bennets, the Bertrams, the younger Dashowoods, the older Knightleys all have shrivelled relationships. It is possible, however, as we see with the Crofts in Persuasion and the Gardiners in Pride and Prejudice whose marriages are based on esteem or respect – two of Jane Austen’s favourite words. Elizabeth’s father, speaking from experience says to her, ‘I know you could never be happy or respectable unless you truly esteemed your husband…let me not have the grief of seeing you not able to respect your partner in life.’
If you consider Jane Austen’s own aim for her writing: ‘two or three families in a country village – the very thing to work from,’ it is social cohesion that interests her as much as financially bolstered love. Her genius lies in the way she continues to show us who we are as we negotiate our fragile and comical lives. Virginia Woolf says, ‘Jane Austen is a mistress of a much deeper emotion than appears on the surface…a trifle which expands in the reader’s mind. She stimulates us to supply what is not there…Think away the trifle, the surface animation, the likeness to life, and there remains an exquisite discrimination of human values.’
This is the joy and satisfaction of reading Jane Austen. The novels have the quality of ‘two inches of ivory’; they repay ‘earnest perusal’, their trifles expand in our minds in a way no Mills and Boon story or a film of a novel can ever achieve. Pride and Prejudice was originally entitled First Impressions. Tim Upperton’s response to Pride and Prejudice may in fact be compared with Darcy’s first impression of Elizabeth: ‘tolerable.’ But Darcy observes and considers: he perceives her uncommon intelligence and revises his ‘insufficient pretensions.’
‘What you want to be,’ said Alan Bennett’s Mam when he was about five years old, ‘is a gentleman farmer…They earn up to £10 a week.’
Why gentlemen farmers Bennett asks years later, and his older self replies, ‘The answer of course was books.’ His mother had never met a gentleman farmer, but she read novels and there they could be found, comfortable, secure and powerful.
That small exchange in his essay, The Treachery of Books, triggered one of those frissons that comes over you when the words on a page leap up and speak just to you.
Suddenly I was about eight in the kitchen watching my mother iron my father’s shirts. He was working late, my brothers were in bed, my sister wasn’t yet born; we were drinking warm bournvita.
‘If you want to be a teacher, my mother was saying, ‘you must read… I always wanted to be a teacher… But the war…’
A teacher for my mother was like a gentleman farmer for Alan Bennett’s. Being a teacher meant pens, paper and books. Did I want to be a teacher? I became one…of course – I was the oldest child, flagship of my parents’ dreams – bespectacled, diligent, dutiful. Mostly I’ve liked teaching. Always I’ve loved reading. As soon she could, my mother joined us up at the tiny Havelock North library, and for every birthday, gave my brothers and me small Nelson editions of the classics – Dickens, Thackeray Jane Austen and the Brontës were waiting for us whether we were ready or not.
My mother grew up in a convent in the north, and five years after the war, she left England forever with a suitcase and a book – The Valley of Decision. She sailed into Wellington one day in 1950 and lived in Oriental Bay, until she met my father who’d also come to New Zealand on a reconfigured troop ship. He dragged with him a wooden green trunk with his name stencilled across its surface. These two objects symbolised what was most important for my parents – and probably for every immigrant: education and a yearning to belong.
They built a house of blocks as secure as the third little pig’s, on a steep hill in Havelock North. It was at the end of a road; there were paddocks and sheep. Behind the house there was a forest.
And so we come, by the power of place, to fairy tales. There must have been a book; my mother must have read. But it’s her voice I hear saying Once upon a time…, Close by the King’s castle lay a great dark forest…, And they all lived happily ever after. The forest outside our house was full of sounds and airs – there were magpies in the macrocarpas – but it didn’t give delight. It was dark, there were sheep tracks, there were stinging nettles and people you couldn’t see but felt – Hansel and Gretel, Snow-White, Rapunzel. You could become Little Red Riding Hood and I did. My mother had one of those half-aprons which I transformed into a red velvet cloak. Through the forest I flew to a grandmother in a castle, an old wooden house with verandahs and a green-lidded well. The old woman who lived there lay in bed with a hairnet on her head and a tin of Quality Street chocolates on a bedside table. ‘Fancy, the little Dutch child,’ she’d say when I stood near her wondering whether she was crying or laughing because of her rheumy eyes.
I was charmed by that house and the people who looked after her: a house-keeper, a woman my mother called a ‘companion’ – different from a ‘friend’, and Ted the dungareed gardener who made a stile – the world was full of words – across the barbed wire between our house and the forest.
I was not an outdoors child. I felt early the perils of the dark wood – even the Hundred Aker Wood, where Pooh and Piglet wandered. I loved the opening sentence of Jane Eyre – ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day’, because that meant everything would unfold inside.
That old house was dark and mysterious. Outside the bedroom was a corridor with a strip of green carpet held in place by brass rods. All the doors along the corridor were closed, and the more I read, the more they became the door to Bluebeard’s chamber, to the Red Room where Mr Reed died, to Clarissa Dalloway’s glacial green bedroom.
My reading has been formed by two things – my mother’s voice and that house. My mother has a very musical voice and instinctively understood the lure of rhyme, rhythm and repetition, and as long as she got the essentials right in a fairy tale, we didn’t mind deviation while she poked the washing with her washing stick or sat by the window knitting.
She also had a high opinion of Churchill, and we had a copy of The Island Race in our house. My brothers and I pored over this for hours, especially the execution of poor Catholic Mary Queen of Scots whose lapdog emerged from her skirts after her head had been cut off. I formed a conviction that English history was the most important history; my Dutch heritage suppressed mainly because of my unpronounceable name, and my father’s fondness for kissing us in public and calling out to us in his loud Dutch voice – so everyone looked.
There was also a problematic book, which although we loved very much because it showed us where he came, from confirmed my secret feelings that Dutch people were unreliable – they might seem quiet and low-lying, but give them a chance and they’d make a loud attention-drawing racket. The book was about Hendrika, a cow who ate too much grass, grew very fat, and fell, first into a canal, and then onto a raft. She loved being on her raft – she mooed with happiness – an embarrassing Dutch moo – and she was on a quest for a straw hat with streamers. On every page you see happy, plump, plain Dutch people in clogs, caps, and lacy aprons, staring at the cow in the canal. When she finally clatters into the cheese market spilling red waxy balls in all directions, Mr Hofstra her owner, shouts out her name in his loud Dutch voice.
It is such a good story and Spier’s illustrations are peerless, but as a child, I shuddered because of its subliminal message of exposure. I wanted to see but I didn’t want to be seen.
Which brings me back to the house in the forest. I crept around the edges of that old lady’s life but she became a blue print for other old women in literature – the grandmother whose spectacles Peter mended in Heidi, Mrs Bates in Emma whose spectacles Frank Crawford also fixed while secretly wooing Jane Fairfax. These two were silent – but one day I met one of my favourite and funny old ladies: Marcel’s stationary aunt Octave in Swann’s Way who ‘no longer wished to leave, first Combray, then within Combray her house, then her bedroom, then her bed’. She also had a bedside table – ‘a high altar of statues, missals and medicines.’ On the table in my old lady’s house, apart from the Quality Street chocolates, I remember only a glass and water jug beneath beaded crotcheted covers.
Aunt Octave talked to herself, and Marcel, the attentive watcher listened: ‘I must be sure to remember I did not sleep…(for never sleeping was her great claim…and sometimes she forgot herself and said, ‘What woke me up’ or, ‘I dreamed that’… and would blush and correct herself instantly’.
For most of my reading life, I’ve read novels, and loved especially novels which make me laugh, but I’ve now I’m interested in remembering. So often the first memory is of the mother’s voice, as Alan Bennett has showed us in that early essay, and Francis Spufford begins his marvellous memoir with, ‘“I can always tell when you’re reading somewhere in the house,” my mother used to say.’
For Virginia Woolf, the first memory is the primal memory:
‘If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills, – then my bowl stands upon this first memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed, in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one two, one two, and sending a splash of water over the beach, and then breaking, one two, one two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling… the purest ecstasy I can conceive.’
Every time you read a book, you bring to those words on the page all the experiences that have ever formed you – it wasn’t until I sat down to write this essay that I understood that at some level, I am still the little Dutch child listening to my mother, or standing by the bed of an old woman in a dark old house hoping for a chocolate from the Quality Street tin.
On Tuesday night I went to the Gus Fisher Gallery for the launch of John Newton’s new book of poems: Family Songbook. It’s a beguiling little book even before you’ve opened it – its cover wholly taken up by a Woollaston sketch. I like sketches – they seem to be simple, possibly a prelude to something more serious like a painting, but often they are the artist’s first impression so there’s an energy and lightness about them that may not always stay in a painting.
There are scribbled clouds and scribbled poplars; there are the spines of hills and hills shaded or cross-hatched; there seems to be a track, it might be a river, might be a road. Woollaston worked in ink (I think) and sometimes it’s dark and sometimes it’s faint, but all the time you feel his eye framing the landscape – order and placement underpin apparently artless marks. The title, Family Songbook, is in a sort of charcoal American typewriter font, and John’s name below in a muted shade of orange. Everything about the cover suggests, not exactly nostalgia, but a reassessment – a looking back, although of course, looking forward – movement – is also implicit in the diagonal lines that dance across the sketch.
Michele Leggott gave the book a wonderful launch. She said she’d been living with the poems for at least a year – that John had made a CD of them for her so they were in her ears. She said she always started at the back of a book first; that this was a wise decision in the case of Family Songbook because many things contained in the notes helped the reading of the poems. She explained how the loops of illusions in Envoi ripple throughout the other poems. Finally she addressed them – six long poems, and conceded that autonomous as they are, they are also one long poem which is in fact an answer to a question John asked in his collection Lives of the Poets:
How do you translate
the old family story into something that anyone else
wants to hear?
And John read several poems. We all wanted to hear.
Family Songbook is ‘an old family story’, and family a capacious noun in which people, place, music and art move and join and part and are woven together. This is what has stayed:
Woolsheds were meant to be woolshed-red.
Now everywhere they’re galvanised iron.
What if the colour were to vanish
from a landscape? That oxidised crimson
like dried blood, the pond with its sugary
crust of duckweed, Jonathans ripening in April
streaked with honey. Cold it be simpler?
I need this colour, as much as I need
That towering summer in the riverbed
somewhere below Ikamatua:
salmony blush on the granite boulders,
water the colour of yellow Chartreuse;
A sandy hollow, your mahogany
tan; a happy, clumsy, scribble of self.
From Great Days in New Zealand Painting
Later that night I walked through Aotea Square all hedged about with high hurricane fencing. There were security guards here and there, a few people smoking on seats. I walked around the side of the Aotea Centre where the techies unload their stuff – there’s a path and some steps up to Mayoral Drive. A woman with a long skirt was pulling herself slowly up the path holding on to the rail.
‘Walk with me,’ she said. ‘You’re going too bloody fast. Me, I’m fat and I’ve got my Achilles tendon.’
There was something strange about her – her face round as a plate, her teeth glinting in the overhead light, and the curious ownership of her tendon. Her voice was a blend of Australian and Indian.
‘That hurts,’ I said. ‘My sister tore her Achilles. Where are you going? You don’t sound as if you come from here.’
She gestured towards the hotel across the street. ‘There,’ she said. ‘I’m from Perth. I’m on a tour of your beautiful city, but I couldn’t find a hole in the wall. I needed some cash. I get all the way down there with my leg and then, look –’ she pointed up at the ASB tower – ‘I could’ve just walked me over there. Can you walk with me across the road? I’m scared cos of my leg.’
We walked slowly out into the middle of Mayoral Drive towards the hotel. I could smell the last of the star jasmine.
‘But where do I get in?’ she asked.
‘I thought you were staying here.’
‘I am, but it looks different from before.’
We walked round to the entrance on Grey’s Avenue. She leaned against the raised concrete garden bed and stared at me.
‘What do you do for a crust?’
‘You a writer? Books?’
‘What kind of writer if you don’t write books?’
‘Essays.’ She pauses. ‘Essays.’ She tried the word out. ‘Well, thanks, writer. You look like a nun. Are you getting it?’
The first is a photograph of an orange ladder. The photograph hangs in my house but not for much longer because I’m giving it to my daughter for her birthday in a week’s time. That’s not the absolute truth – it is her birthday – in four days actually, and I am giving it to her, but not for a month, when she comes to Auckland. I don’t want to, which you could say, is why I’m fudging. I want to keep it. But she chose it, and if you can, you give things to your children, especially when they love them.
Thing is a reductive word.
‘They’re only things,’ said the photographer one misty morning as he strode through the streets and caught a cobweb in a corner, a bundle of blankets by a blue fence, a steeple piercing the fog.
And in this case, it’s only a ladder leaning beside a wall. I wrote against at first, and now I look again. I see that it isn’t; that the ladder has to be leaning on something protruding from the building, otherwise it would be angled differently – might never have caught the photographer’s quick eye. The building isn’t local. Those slabs of stone look too big, too old to have been built on our soft yellow clay, and that deeply recessed window strengthened by iron bars suggests caution, protection, privacy – so different from our batten and board or chicken-meshed walls which we can almost push our hands into. Or out of.
Who put the ladder there and why? It’s chipped, old – see those two bits of peeling tape; a scruffy ladder, a repaired ladder – but that’s as it should be – ladders are tools; they help you fix things – I think of wires and connection, of bulbs and light, which, you with your landlocked feet, can’t reach. Ladders lift you; give you another point of view, change who you see, how you see. Change you. The rungs of this ladder are pale bars of light quietly, quietly carrying your eyes (your feet) up to the frame of the photograph – and then what? That’s what I like about this photograph – its mute mystery. The ladder has become more than only – more than a thing – it leans beside the wall. Waiting. And from an invisible anchor on the leaf-splattered pavement, it lifts its arms.
The photograph hangs in my house waiting for my daughter. I pass it every day – each time I get up from this chair, there it is, and sometimes the strength of its silence forces me to turn to it. I look at the black rectangle behind the ladder: a window between two slabs of grey stone – dark enough to imagine it’s just a black space which makes the orange ladder more brilliant. But if I look again, I see that the darkness is speckled with light – the bars divide the window into sections and each might be the skin of the sea, a cloudy night. Or even a message in braille. The bars divide; the bars protect – at different times we need to see in different ways.
I’m myopic. I worry always about not seeing – clearly, enough, into the distance – and indeed I must peer into this dark void to discover that quiet glitter. But it’s there, just as the rungs on the ladder are ascending bars of light, just as the ladder stretches up and out of the photograph…
This photograph, you might say, is a study of light and its unexpected revelations. The walls confining the dark window are chipped, chalk-scrawled, paint-splattered. But someone has used them as a book, board or easel; someone has wanted to make a mark, less lovely than those dancing shapes in dark caves; yet has yearned to leave a trace. And the orange ladder on the gritty concrete (does it stretch up, or lean down like a bar of sun?) whispers that we long to be lifted – to see and be seen. In the light.
So when my daughter comes next month, I’ll give her the photograph. It will hang in her flat where the traffic never stops and the birds clatter like knives. She too will look at it each day and its serenity and beauty will make her pause as she wipes the table or picks up her daughter’s toys.
We’ll think of each other. The ladder is a bridge.
The second ladder has escaped. It floats in a blue sky at dusk and the blue is washed like silk, like milk. The sky fills the canvas; is empty but for the ladder; your eyes drink the blue – you can’t have enough of it – you breathe and it fills you, and the space of it carries the ladder – and you. You float in that blue space too, your arms also outstretched, straining towards that ear of a moon. The ladder sprang from a dark distant mountain, but in its eagerness, has miscalculated – it will never reach the moon, for the moon is unassailable. But it doesn’t matter. Only the leap matters. And the leap is into enormity and silence. In a place of seemingly forbidding ‘emptiness’ whose components are stripped to earth, air and sky, what do you hear but your own footsteps, the wind carrying random patches of birdsong or animal howl.
The painting is Ladder to the Moon. Georgia O’Keefe, whose house Ghost Ranch lay on the badlands near the Jemez Mountains, said, ‘if I walk for fifteen minutes from the house, I am in some place I have never been before; where it seems no one has been before.’ The painting was inspired by a vision she had of a floating ladder and possibly a prayer: ‘if I painted this place often enough, perhaps God would give it to me.’[i]
I first saw the painting on Poetry Day in 2006 when I was, briefly a relief teacher in the Far North. That day I was the in the art room and my instructions were simple: ‘Clss to continue w projects. They know what 2 do. Folders in box in back room. Ask Tiriti to hand out. NB fill in roll. VIP. Thanx.’
‘Who is Tiriti?’
‘He’s away today. Miss.
‘Gapped it Miss.’
‘Catching kina Miss.’
‘You like kina Miss?’
‘Where’s Sir Miss?’
‘Is that your name on the board miss?’
‘You married Miss?’
‘You Indian Miss?’
‘Where you come from Miss?’
‘I seen you at the supermarket Miss.’
‘Can we have the radio on Miss?’
‘No. Could you put your phone away please.’
‘Aw, shit. Sorry Miss. Can’t Miss. My sister’s having a baby Miss. Any minute Miss. I might get da call. Sir always lets us.’
‘He’s going to be a uncle, Miss.’
‘He is already.’
‘Yeah, he does.’
‘We always have the radio.’
‘Well, not today. Sir says you know what to do and your projects are in a box in the back room.’
‘’S locked Miss. Got da key?’
‘Sir didn’t say anything about a key.’
‘Sir’s a douche bag Miss.’
‘’S true Miss.’
‘Try da door Miss. See. ’S locked. Cos we are robbers Miss.’
It was true. The back room door was locked, and the art room a tunnel with windows facing a concrete yard with a leaking tap and three plastic bins. If you walked to the windows, you could see beyond the yard, the symmetrical branches of Norfolk pines, beyond which lay the blue bowl of the bay. Posters on the walls – of the Northland Panels, a Clairmont sofa, and Picasso at a bull fight – vied with students’ renditions of Fomison or manga. There were six or eight paint-splattered tables, an assortment of plastic stools and about twenty students. The girls were squashed around a table at the back of the room putting on make-up, texting, or eating. They threw apples to one another. Some had yoghurt and fed their friends with plastic spoons or poured it down their throats. They aimed the cores and containers at the bin near my desk. They were not good shots. Others in pink or pale blue puffer jackets shared earplugs and jiggled to unheard music. A few looked up occasionally through panda eyes, but mostly they faced the windows so I looked on an impenetrable pastel-coloured puffered wall.
The boys wore nylon jackets with stripes and numbers, and caps so it was hard to see their eyes. Some had enormous diamond studs in their ears. They pushed back the sleeves of their jackets and sprawled across the tables. They drew gigantic penises, or masked men with guns on one another’s arms, legs and hands. They took turns at decorating, they compared, contrasted and congratulated.. It was 9.15. The class finished at 10.
On the table apart from Sir’s instructions and the roll book was a battered book of paintings by Georgia O’Keefe.
‘Has Sir been telling you about Georgia O’Keefe?’
‘She lived in da desert Miss.’
‘She liked bones Miss.’
‘And close-ups of flowers, Miss.’
‘She was rude as, Miss.’
‘She was a rude dude.’
‘Have you looked at her flowers?’
‘Can’t Miss. Too disgusting.’
‘She must of been a pervert, Miss.’
‘Sir’s a pervert, Miss.’
‘Are you a pervert Miss?’
‘Here is a painting,’ I said. ‘What do you think?’
‘’S Cool, Miss.’
‘Why is da ladder flying to da moon, Miss?’
‘It was smoking weed, Miss.’
‘You want some weed, Miss?’
‘What do you like about the painting?’
The girls put gloss on their little fingers and spread it on each other’s lips. I walked to the boys’ table and put the book in front of them. They raised their heads and tipped their caps back and their big brown hands stroked the page.
‘It wants to excape Miss.’
‘Like us, Miss. We want to excape. It sucks here Miss.’
We looked at the moon and the mountains and the floating ladder. We talked about walking and being quiet and symbols and why they wore diamonds and rings.
‘It’s Poetry Day,’ I said. ‘Here’s a poem about a ladder. Write it in your homework books. Take it home and read it to your parents. Learn it by heart. I’m coming back tomorrow.’
No book, Miss. No pencils neither. They locked in da back room. Bell’s going in ten minutes Miss. We gotta tidy up and get ready for School Council Meeting.’
‘Just do it.’
‘I’ll time you.’
Too short to reach the roof,
too short to threaten important windows,
the ladder lies on its side
behind the house, out of sight.
The ladder lies in the grass,
A different grain in each of its rungs
(and wings on each rung
so where can you place your feet?).
And as you can see, it is rotten.
Nevertheless, it longs to be lifted.
Ladder, Paris, Harvey Benge
I’m at a table in Taupo looking over the lake. The doors are open, there is a lawn, a hedge, a band of blue water. The sky is white and the mountains a blue scribble. My friend is painting and my daughter and her friend are reading. (Books). Waves lick the pumice beach beyond the hedge and you can hear cicadas, but the sounds are small, private – the rustle of a page, my fingers on the computer, and – of course – that ping when one of the girls gets a text or an instagram. No one has spoken for about twenty minutes but everyone’s aware of the water; we look up to see what it’s doing, and what about the mountains? Can we see them yet?
And how blue shifts.
I’ve heard that some of the older Tuwharetoa people will only go to the mountains when the clouds come down and cover the summits, and this morning I read of the anger of a Tuwharetoa chief when John Bidwill, told him in about 1859 that he’d climbed Tongariro:
He had worked himself into a most terrible pitch of fury at which I only laughed. The cause of complaint was my having ascended Tongariro. I said that a Pakiha could do no harm in going up, as no place was taboo to a Pakiha; that the taboo applied only to Mowries; and finally that if the mountain was an atua, then I must be a greater atua, or I could not have got to the top of it, but that if he could see to it that the people made haste with the canoe, I would give him some tobacco. I then took out one fig for each of his companions, who sat still all the time without saying a word, and gave him three figs. It proved a most astonishing sedative. He quite changed his tone in a minute and sat down. He could not help saying, however, that if he had thought that I had gone up the mountain, he would have prevented me from ever trying to do it, and requested me not to tell any other Pakihas of it on any account.[i]
This morning there seems to be no one on the lake or in it, although one day in 1859 Reverend T. C. Grace reckoned he saw as many as four hundred canoes – the lake was essential for transport although its capricious mood swings meant that it has a long sad history of drownings.
I’ve been here in winter when it’s freezing and waves hurl onto the shore and the house shakes and whines. On those days the mountains are absolutely hidden – it’s the sound and fury of the water that pulls you to the window to stare in a kind of hypnosis at the fury of the waves. Today those images are just memories.
Tomorrow we’ll drive to Hawkes Bay where my brothers and sister and I shall pack up our parents’ house which they built more than fifty years ago and where they’ve lived with hardly a night apart except when my father went back to Holland in 1965 for the first time since he’d left in 1950.
It has been a time of great upheaval. Real estate agents, no matter how kind and thoughtful, are not people they’ve had anything to do with; preparing the house for open homes has made them very anxious. They’re not used to not being at home, or of not being allowed to be at home even if it’s only for an hour while parties inspect. Quite a few interested parties through; a lot of interest; very unusual house, cheep the agents. When you’re in your eighties there is only home – they know nothing of cafes or lattes in between appointments because they rarely have them. But at last the house has sold; in two weeks they’ll be in a small flat near the library, the church, and the supermarket. We won’t be able to stay with them, or, only one by one – this is why my daughter is coming with me. I went away to school when I was twelve and after that my visits home became progressively shorter. While they lived in one house, I’ve lived in about twenty, and in the last ten years I’ve moved from one to another every few years. But my childhood memories of growing up in that brand new house made of blocks on a hill are clear.
My room had high curtainless windows and at night I’d watch the moon and sometimes a glitter of stars; I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and staring up at the black glass. My mother had told us to pray for her hero President Kennedy beset by those terrible men Khrushchev and Castro. Even then I doubted that my prayers would make much difference. What I remember was fear and that the house of blocks was not impregnable.
These high windows also meant that each morning I was woken by the first slice of light. There were also the magpies. I didn’t learn about them until I held Dick Frizzell’s book in one hand and a child in the other, but the quardle oodle ardle among the macrocarpas behind our house is an ur-sound. So too the thump of a washing machine garlanded by hymns. There was always washing and there was always singing. By seven o’clock our mother was dressed and feeding clothes into hot foaming water with a wooden stick. And singing. She was brought up by nuns; she sang in the choir throughout her war-spoiled schoolhood; she knew only hymns, and before I went to school, so did I apart from a lullaby my father sometimes sang apart from Slaap kindje slaap, a lullaby my father sometimes sang.
This year my parents had their sixtieth wedding anniversary and the grandchildren wrote about staying with them:
I have always loved visiting Oma and Opa. Their house has strange, exciting features, like the breakfast hutch and the high bedroom windows and Opa’s rolls cooling on the rack, and a comforting biscuity smell. Out the back, the playing fields seemed to stretch forever under the bleaching sun – although in recent years they haven’t seemed quite as massive and daunting. I even stayed in the back room, which for a long time, I had thought was only for special occasions, or playing with fuzzy felts and Lego.
One of my favourite activities at Oma and Opa’s was drinking tea in bed. I think this was my first experience of tea. I can’t remember how old I was – young enough for tea to be an exciting adult drink, and small enough to fit easily into bed with O and O and Juliet. Oma or Opa would come back from the kitchen with a tray covered in engraved silver and matching crockery. They would undertake a complicated ritual involving a lot of elegant instruments that we did not use at home: teapot, strainer, milk from its own jug and sugar from a silver bowl with a matching spoon. We drank our tea snug between grandparents while the Concert Programme burbled in the background. It was, as Charlie likes to say, heaven. Back at home in Auckland, and for the next twenty-five years, I made tea with a bag and a mug, which is no fun. When I moved to Sydney, I had nowhere to put mugs because I had almost no furniture, and I rediscovered the value of saucers. Mum gave me a blue teapot, a milk jug and a sugar bowl – she has also reverted to the saucer over the last few years. Funny to think that it took us such a long time to relearn the rituals of tea making. Oma and Opa, of course, knew all the time.
It could be partly because I’m always on holiday when I visit, but staying in their house feels peaceful and calm. Oma and Opa don’t hurry or shout. Everything has its place, and the only clutter, if you can call it that, are pictures of cousins and uncles looking ridiculously young and lively. We sit by the view out over Havelock North, or at the table by the magic hutch and eat Opa’s rolls and tease him about golf croquet and talk books with Oma. And we feel so cared for we revert to silly kids’ games until Mum says, ‘Stop that at once!’ while Oma and Opa pretend not to notice.
I have a clear picture of both of you standing outside the front door ready to greet us when we come to stay. You’d have been getting ready for us all day, wondering when we’d arrive; there would be brass vases of flowers on the rug on the table, and sometimes I’d smell nasi goreng when I walked in the door. If I’d come with Mum, she’d burst into the sitting room and fling back those soft curtains which stop the sun blasting in. I loved having tea and almond cake with you and looking round the room at all those photos of my cousins and uncles and aunts, as well as that photo of you standing on a glacier. And all the stories about when Mum and the others were young – I loved those, just as I loved sleeping in ‘the girls’ room’ and hearing about our relations in Holland.
I can’t get used to the fact that I won’t go there again.
[i] Tongariro – a Sacred Gift, Potton, Craig, Lansdown Press and Craig Potton, Auckland, 1987, p164
At my son’s desk – a few books – Banksy, Hicksville, The 10 PM Question – but mainly, turntables, boxes of records and coils of connections lying like sleeping snakes. He’s somewhere in the States. Spokane perhaps. On Christmas day he Skyped from a van outside Seattle and I saw a moustache beneath a checked cap, but happy eyes. Having a great time Ma – driving around in a van is cool. He’s travelling round with Apollo 13, Mission Control – small towns to gauge American reaction, but there’s been a publicity glitch and audiences are small. One American is like ten Kiwis if they like something but they like different stuff from us. They really like that it’s about them. They don’t laugh at the same stuff we do. The audience has to make decisions – must programme computers to calculate space, distance and time. It gets tense. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0f20G-NDDg.
Why am I fixated on his caps? There’s a shelf above the bed in his room where he has an altar of official onfield caps made from felt or tartan; no, plaid because they come from America. There are letters or words on each, and although they all look pretty much the same (to me) there’s a hierarchy: some may be worn, others revered, and sisters may not borrow if the sun gets too hot. They’re not about the sun of course. They look both hopeful and forlorn arrayed above his bed and there’s a gap where a sister has recently filched one.
The States are great but the food weird, so sweet, even the bread. They understand pretty much everything except for water. Say what, they say. Wottah I try. Gotcha they say.
Redfern is quiet, or forsaken.
Regent Street is go-downs with handwritten notes on corrugated iron promising opening hours in the new year and wishing everyone a good one. Today I wander down to the IGA to buy bread and meet a man with a bushy beard beneath his cap.
Hello Aunty. Where you going? You beautiful Aunty. Any loose change?
He follows me inside; we pad around the aisles together – he has large brown feet with long nails the colour of dirty ivory that slip slop over the linoleum in worn rubber jandals. He takes me to the bread and suggests what sort I should buy, but when we come out on to the street again, he sees someone else and melts away.
Frank’s shop is open. He knows the girls. He shows me a teapot one had wanted to buy for another, but he won’t be able to sell it to them now because a mate had come in and told him he could get $250 for it. Stelton. Flawless. Those Danes…was it them or the Swedes who started Ikea?
How was his Christmas?
Better than expected… After all.
He had dinner with a lady I went out with once and her two sons. It had been looking bad; his daughter had gone to her mother’s with her daughter who was also four.
A couple come in and ask about a sideboard. It’s a Parker. A credenza, Frank emphasises, teak; the better end of Parker. The man says that’s what he sat round – me and my sisters or something similar but not as good – when he was growing up in the country. It was weird that these things were having a revival. Plus ça change says Frank.
I pass Mitch in A Pair of Chairs. He’s sitting in one on the pavement reading The Far Side of the World. Chairs from the fifties and sixties – armchairs, dining chairs, some to be repaired and others newly dressed in Florence Broadhurst, loom over him on hooks. Their legs turn out slightly like dancers in first position. I have a friend who often tells me I walk with turned-out feet and I’m in danger of arthritic hips. Sometimes she makes me walk in front of her and sees all kinds of things I don’t know about myself – my turned-out feet, my uneven shoulders, a tendency to veer left when walking. And those are only the physical things. If I concentrate and walk with my feet pointing directly in front of me, I feel pigeon-toed; if I try to make my shoulders level, I feel like the crooked man but she assures me these feelings will pass if I’m prepared to make the effort.
Inside the shop are tables, more suspended chairs, and a boy bouncing on a sofa – his movement and the frozen chairs produces a kind of paralysed expectancy. He wears a small red skull cap and striped shorts and stops and stares at us appraisingly. I’m hungry.
Mitch is irritated. Abdul, I’ve told you not to jump when there are customers.
On one of the tables is a packet of cigarettes, a crowded ashtray and a black paperback entitled Mozzad, a present, but not a Christmas present. He has curly reddish hair and thick spectacles. It’s good if you’re a believer – they slide over a fair bit. Is he a believer? He takes off his specs. His fingers are a little bit yellow.
You know what…? It’s complicated . How much do you know about the Israeli Question?
I admit I know very little – that sometimes it seems very simple, but other times – especially when I’m reading, my head hurts.
Mitch agrees. That’s why I need Patrick O’Brian – when thinking becomes so hard, you need comfort, something that goes on and on like a saga; something you know really well – I’ve been reading Patrick O’Brian since I was a kid – he numbs complication.
We leave Adbul on the sofa – he’s waiting for us to go – he knows Mitch’s routine – and wander back out on to the street. Mitch pulls another pack of cigarettes out of a pocket and taps it.
Actually I have a problem; well it’s a client problem…I like my work; I stand by it, but my chairs are at least fifty years old, and you know they can break break; they do break. But this client…I don’t know how to deal with him – the best way…you mind if I talk a bit…I’m processing.
The client has a broken chair, a cat, a dog, a certain hauteur…
What can I say – he comes from way the other side.
He’s on the pavement with Patrick O’Brian, occasionally Mozzad, and his cigarettes waiting for the chair which must be fixed by the following morning because guests are coming. He told him on the phone he doesn’t expect to pay because he’s only had the chair for six months.
Fifteen actually…But the dog…
Mitch has seen the dog, and the sound of the break, and if the man had spoken just a little bit differently…
I walk back to the flat thinking about the comfort of something that goes on like a saga. A saga is a long heroic tale, it’s inspiring, it lifts you. I suppose you could say it’s about certainty. There are twenty books in Patrick O’Brian’s saga of the Napoleonic Wars in which the life and friendship of Jack the captain and Stephen the surgeon – prevails despite almost every kind of hardship. When you read a story like that, just as when I read and reread Emma or Persuasion when it’s too hard to do anything, you always know they lived happily ever after. We read to know we’re not alone; when a client is difficult, houses are going up on the West Bank and you wish they weren’t even though you believe in the state of Israel, you feel hostile or alienated – not so different from the German word for alone – allein. Israel goes on and on of course. A saga but no happy ending. Biblical. My concerns are smaller but we share anxieties.
Redfern is very hot so the mornings my granddaughter and I stay inside while her mother is at work. We discuss what to wear – we examine her dresses and I suggest possibilities but she is not in a mood for clothes except her mother’s high-heeled-leopard-skinned-once-worn-‘best’-shoes, and a pink, of course, sunhat for when we hang out the washing. We make houses out of blocks, water her new plant – a frangipani in a pot with hopeful tendrils, and repair the damage Alfie ‘her’ dog has inflicted on the parsley in a planter on the terrace. We agree that Alfie is just like Harry the Dirty Dog who also buries bones for later savour, and we take parts reading little red hood.[i]
I’ll be the Wolf and you can be Hood till she gets to give him the poison and then you can be the Wolf.
After lunch she says we should go to Redfern Park – she will go by scooter and consents to shorts and a pink singlet.
I always have an ice cream and you can have a coffee from Coffee Tea and Me.
She scooters across to the BP station outside her apartment where even the usual convocation of ibises seems too tired to scavenge, and chooses a huge Magnum. We walk slowly along Redfern Street keeping under the awnings which are few and far apart. She is serious and silent and licks systematically and rejects any offers to tidy up the dribbles. We pass the Aboriginal Health Centre next to Coffee Tea and Me and while I wait for my coffee, a man tells me that if I really want to do something for my kid, I should let her scoot.
The next day I go to see my friend who has a card – MAN WITH A VAN CAN. He lives in a row of crumbling buildings on one side of Centennial Park – elegant palings and a screaming motorway separates you from a beckoning greenness. He lived until recently in the top storey of one of the houses, but a fierce tenant in a neighbouring house took a shine to it. After a considerable amount of argy-bargy which included my friend’s being knocked about, he went to the owner of this terraced strip – a redoubtable Greek Sybil. She bristled; she puffed; she pronounced but she finally acknowledged there were spaces among her abandoned houses; if the fierce neighbour wanted his house, there was this… and she showed him.
And he showed me.
You walk between a slit of stone and stone. The traffic noise fades. No birds sing; there are weeds, cracked concrete; beside you broken windows. Electric flexes slither from one window to another. You can hardly tell they’re windows they’re so encrusted with dust and greasy grime; they’ve long ago lost the glint you expect of glass, and behind these shards lives the colonising fist-free neighbour and his girlfriend.
There is an opening in the wall – a kind of punched alcove where two or three ladders hang beside a door. My ladditorium. He pushes the door which leads directly on to a flight of open stairs covered in violent orange and black carpet. The theme is protection or survival. Saws. Gloves over railings, like supplicant fingers. There are scarves, a helmet, a gas mask, a row of water bottles. China dogs and outsize open Swiss army knives are sentry men at the top of the landing where is a small table and chairs – my room with a view (of a secret about to be tamed paddocks and a washing line). Above everything, on a high shelf, glass vases glitter and glimmer like a fractured crown, and to complete a crazy conjunction of church and state, a totem of buttons, watches and rosary beads.
My friend is a magpie, an instinctive installation artist. His eye and his hand are always aligned. He gets obsessions – on clocks, knives, bakelite bangles or jardinières. He loves markets and demolition sites, but not junkshops because generally he thinks they’re too organised – it’s spontaneity and surprise that delight him and arouse his own urge to arrange. He’s a flâneur of lanes and alleys, a photographer of shoes, of himself – for a year he took a self-portrait every day – scary, of edges, or fragments or lost things. He hates contrivance: there must be, and always is, eccentricity in his collections. He can even make brown beautiful. He can’t wait for an exhibition to open of Song Dong, an artist who’s arranged the entire contents of his parents’ house as a tribute to their resilience during the Cultural Revolution, including the skeleton of the (tiny) house, in meticulously delineated piles on the gallery floor. The exhibition is called ‘Waste Not’ you can see some of the images on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/carriageworks
In my son’s room I lie on his bed and think about bravery. Most mornings in Ponsonby Road I’d meet a man with long hair, a lined yellow face and long lean legs which are usually encased in red striped rugby socks. A scarecrow of a man with long sight who’s never still. He tumbles along the road all day, one hand outstretched ready to greet you if your eyes meet.
Back in Auckland I learn he has died.
[i] Subversive minimalist retelling of Little Red Riding Hood by Marjolaine Leray.