On the morning of July 15th, Moscow was as hot as an oven. Deep in the Metro, the trains seemed to travel too fast, the crowds were densely packed and the air was sweaty and close. When the news came that a train had derailed between Park Pobedy and Slavyansky Stations, killing twenty-two people, it was a fact to turn over in the mind, to consider with perverse wonder: I was on the Moscow Metro that very morning. I was down there, sweating and claustrophobic and silently complaining about the speed. Just as, the month before, I was flying over eastern Ukraine, on a Singapore Airlines flight to London, before that airspace was closed. Eat, drink and be merry, the universe was telling me, for tomorrow we go up in smoke.
Like a child, sleeping in a UN school in Gaza. In a Moscow hotel we watched the World Cup final. In the bar were thirty elderly Germans and a group of Israelis. Two screens had been set up, one a Russian channel, the other German. At half time, Russian TV played clips of sexy cheerleaders, while the German channel dourly switched to the news: live coverage of the bombing of Gaza.
We watched in silence, as Palestinian women and children screamed and panicked and died. I wanted to get up and say, OK, re Gaza. You Israelis, you Germans. Does anyone want to share? The Israelis were crying bullets, the people of Gaza were dying, the Germans silently sipped their tankards of beer. Nothing to do with them, these murderous Israeli tears. It wasn't their fault. Still, one thing was very clear: whatever or whoever had driven them to it, the Israelis had gone completely insane.
Derelict buildings are scary. I know this from experience. Years ago when I was working for a law firm in Central Auckland, I found myself between flats and accepted, without much thought, an invitation to move into an apartment on top of the CML building in Queen Street. On the face of it, everything seemed fine. I would be flatting with a law student and a policeman. The apartment had glass doors opening out onto the roof, which served as an enormous concrete deck. It was slightly shabby, but most flats were. It was convenient, so much so that I could see my own office from it. But there was something I didn't take into account until I'd moved in: the CML mall was scheduled for demolition in the future and the entire building below the flat, all eight floors, was completely empty.
When I was a child, I used to be frightened of the house if there was no one home. I would wait outside, or go to a friend's house until the place was occupied. Now, in Queen Street I relived that old fear on a grand scale. In the evening after work I would unlock the glass door to the abandoned mall, walk the length of it after locking the door behind me, enter the lift and ride up through the empty floors. The lift only went to the seventh; then you had to walk a flight of stairs to the flat. This, I soon realized, was potentially dangerous, since there was no way of knowing who could have got into the building during the day.
Consulting the Aeneid in Hawaii
Words of mystery and dread, truth wrapped in obscurity. The Aeneid reads the news for Barack Obama, John Key and Kim Dotcom.
In a sunglasses shop at Auckland Airport, a stranger put on a flamboyant pair of women's shades, and asked me how he looked. Very fetching, I told him, and went back to waiting for the plane. Before embarking on a journey, it is wise to open the Aeneid, pick a line at a random page, and receive a forecast for your travels. I opened my Penguin Classics copy, and consulted the ancient text.
The Aeneid let fly with a string of predictions: the man in the women's shades will sit in front of you on the plane; later you will meet him up a mountain in Hawaii. A middle-aged American in golfing clothes in a Waikiki bar will look sleek and ordinary until you notice two things: his face, and the spider tattooed on his hand. A man will follow you in and out of shops in Waikiki; an elderly man and then an elderly woman will separately approach you in different parts of Honolulu and speak, word for word, exactly the same sentences. These are details, the Aeneid said, to be noted in the interests of fiction.
Beautiful Hawaii, with its shining palms, its brilliant Pacific light. Action-packed Hawaii – the Aeneid had already announced Mr Obama would be in town, getting about on his helicopter, Marine One, his plane, Airforce One, already parked at the airport. (Family holidays – the First Couple forgetting the limo or the helicopter, and furiously turning the plane around to go back for it.)
On Nelson Mandela
Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty
I had been watching the TV series Breaking Bad, admiring its saltiness, its cleverness, its mocking of American mores. Not only entertaining but effectively political, fearlessly willing to examine social pieties, obliquely and subtly iconoclastic, with style and rich characterisation, with humour. Whether the writers set out to achieve this or simply to write a story about the trials of one man in modern America, they have produced something great by turning their attention, brilliantly, to the real world. This, it seems to me, is what art should do. Here we're having a love affair with fantasy, with the ersatz, kitsch and unreal, also with hobbits and dwarves... Even C.S. Lewis said during a meeting of the Inklings, after Tolkien had shown him his latest story, "Not another fucking elf."
I had been watching Breaking Bad, and thinking about infantilism in the arts, when I heard of the death of Nelson Mandela.
Speaking after the announcement, US President Barack Obama said that the first political act he ever did as a young person was attend an anti-apartheid demonstration. It was the same for me. In 1981, when the South African Springboks toured New Zealand, I spent weeks out marching in the streets, going to every anti-apartheid meeting, every rally and sit-in. My best school friend and I never missed a march, and we tried to make sure we were in the front of every one. We held up banners, chanted, walked for miles, and, as the protests intensified and the country became more polarised, we got completely engrossed in the cause. It was political, it was important, and I passionately cared.
Eleanor Catton in Canada
Booked for a three week tour of Canadian literary festivals, I flew to Calgary, a city at the foot of the Rockies. In the restroom at Calgary airport a voice behind me drawled, "No soap." Louise, I thought, looking in the mirror, but actually it was Thelma. I watched as she was ushered through the crowd, Geena Davis, tall and elegant, still a star all these years after she and Susan Sarandon drove their car into the Grand Canyon holding hands.
In winter, Calgary gets to thirty below zero. The city has a network of covered walkways, and I could walk from my hotel to downtown indoors. Jetlagged, I went jogging beside the river, attended parties, performed my quota of readings and panels. I brushed past John Cleese in the foyer (was he here to meet Geena?) and went to an insane reading by Chuck Palahniuk, U.S. author of Fight Club, involving groupies, glow sticks and coloured beach balls. After a week I was driven to Banff, high in the Rocky Mountains. In the hotel there were instructions: now we were deep in the Banff National Park I was advised to beware of wolves, elk, black and grizzly bears, cougars, lynxes and coyotes. Eleanor Catton had arrived in the night and holed up in her room with a bison burger.I woke in the freezing morning to blue skies, extraordinary alpine beauty. Ellie invited me to join her for breakfast, and while we ate, the winner of the Booker Prize gave me a rundown on Canadian wildlife.
Me and Germaine Greer
Let's begin with the tea towel. I was at primary school, one of three children of a stay-at-home mother. Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch had become a bestseller, and women's liberation was very much in the air. Back then, in our house and in the houses of my friends, one of many instances of domestic tyranny was the ironing pile. These days it seems to me a form of madness. Why iron a handkerchief or a pillow case at all? My own rule is iron nothing unless it's your own shirt. Ironing drove my mother crazy but it hadn't occurred to her to give it up. Dully, she flattened a hanky, a cloth napkin. She picked up a tea towel. And then she snapped. She stamped her foot, mangled the tea towel and shouted, "I hate being a housewife." Soon after she'd embarked on the necessary training and got herself a career. The Female Eunuch had entered the collective consciousness and made the throwing down of the tea towel imperative and right. My mother did it gladly, and not a moment too soon.
The personal is political", began Carol Hanisch's feminist memorandum of 1969. In the early days of the women's movement, Hanisch recalled, men "belittled us no end for trying to bring our so-called personal problems into the public arena – especially all those body issues like sex, appearance and abortion." A year later, Germaine Greer courageously laid bare those body issues in The Female Eunuch, a treatise on the lot of women that was idiosyncratic, hectoring, witty, angry and, for the times, quite inflammatory. Women read it and were exhilarated, threw down their ironing, hurled it across the room at their husbands. It's a book antique enough to contain this startling sentence, "That most virile of creatures, the buck negro, has very little body hair at all", and unscientific enough to give us this gem: "Men's habit of wrapping their nether quarters in long garments has resulted in a wastage of the tissues which can be seen in the chicken legs which they expose on any British resort beach." The book is fascinating now because it fixes, with great clarity, an era and a voice. The fact that it's dated shows how far we've come. It seems an expression of Germaine Greer's deepest self, imaginative and personal as well as passionately political. It is famously the book that "changed lives."
On Charlotte Dawson
"God, we partied hard."
When Charlotte Dawson died, her friends publicly poured out their sorrow at her loss. One recounted how kind and good she'd been, how she'd been his advisor, what fun she'd been and how much he'd loved her. He recounted a recent afternoon when she'd summoned him to her apartment on Woolloomooloo Wharf at four in the afternoon and how the fun had raged on into the night. His tone turned rich, fervent, with all with nostalgia of an old soldier summoning up the trenches. He wrote, "God, we partied hard."
I remember Charlotte Dawson, back when we were young, in Brooklyn Flats in Central Auckland. Glimpses, flashes of memory: Charlotte Dawson, stoned, eating a whole packet of bacon with a pair of scissors. Charlotte Dawson with short, bleached, teased-up hair, a white face. To my naïve teenage eye she looked rarified, wild and exotic; I was yet to realize that uncommon glamour doesn't necessarily signify an extraordinary mind. I thought she was a snow leopard; really she was just a nice, ordinary girl. She was beautiful and unruly, as were many of the people who passed through that block of flats back then, before it was renovated and gentrified. It was a den of vice, disorder and talent. Hinemoa Elder lived in one of the basement flats. On another storey lived an artist who regularly stole televisions and pot-plants and threw them out of his window. The park across the road was the site of numerous festivities, bonfires and the mysterious arson of cars.
Wilkie Collins to Woody Allen
In Wilkie Collins's classic novel The Woman in White, Walter Hartwright does what 19th Century protagonists often do mid-novel, before the resolution and the happy ending: he goes abroad. Marion Halcombe sees him in a dream, now shipwrecked on a foreign shore, now menaced by "dark, dwarfish men" with bows and arrows in the grounds of an ancient temple. Glimpsing him in the surreal fragments of her dream, we know he will return, evil will be banished and hope restored. I read on. Out the window a strange sunset lay dark as blood along the edge of the horizon. We were climbing above the clouds and Auckland was already far behind. Have I become addicted to leaving?
I remember a line in Saul Bellow's novel, The Dean's December, about the ice blocks in Lake Michigan, 'gray-white and tan and stained with sand by the prevailing wind.' In the Chicago streets at the edge of Lake Michigan it was summer; no ice blocks but instead a hot sandy beachfront, thousands of swimmers and sunbathers, the stink of coconut oil, a line of crammed and rowdy bars where the beachgoers staggered to drink in the shade of fringed umbrellas. Inland, against the hard bright sky stood the glittering, elegant rampart of the city's skyscrapers. Chicago, scene of the Dean's bleak and freezing December, was baking in a blue August. The architecture was sharply stylish, and the lavish public art reflected American wealth and scale: sculptures, fountains, galleries, parks.