John Clare Writings

Burnt

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Once, during the three periods when I lived hard by or within Kings Cross I went around behind the big red neon Coca Cola sign that stands at the top of William Street, signalling the start of Kings Cross itself. Actually just within its borders looking straight ahead, and well to the right looking left to right. Hard by Darlinghurst in other words. In there I found Penny Lane running from Kings Cross Road to Bayswater Road, or vice versa.  I was not long back from England and it was indeed the period when The Beatles were reaching their greatest heights before dissolving as an artistic/legal/commercial entity. Recently, for the first time in years I went back in there and was taken aback to find that it was Pennys Lane.

Or was it? Surely my eyes were better in the Beatles era. And so was my memory. Ah, now we are confusing the issue. Or do I mean that the memory I was trying to remember was harder and clearer in the past than now? Most importantly, the name had been changed according to a bloke serving behind a bar diagonally back down toward the city. He had no idea why. Furthermore, he said  the neon no longer lit up at night. Nor did it, I soon discovered. I am typing this in a café on Broadway just down toward the city of Sydney from Parramatta Road. Each time a passing vehicle makes the sunlight flicker I imagine that Kings Cross is behind me and feel inclined to take another walk down Macleay Street before moving into my new flat. I always loved Kings Cross in the daytime when it seemed remarkably calm and clean, when the most sharp-angled, haggard and neurotic exhibitionist seemed relaxed in the open air at breakfast .

But my new flat was not in Kings cross. I was living there briefly in a very small room in the Ibis Hotel, up near the top of William Street but out of sight of the sign due to a forgotten displacement of the building from the centrality I had imagined.  I was there for a week, having returned from visiting my daughter in Brisbane, her three boys, my son’s widow and his son. Brisbane is beautiful these days, and we also went back over the  NSW Border and had a dive in fairly shallow water, sun-filled over clean sand, where we saw bream, blackfish (or ludderick) tailor, red-brown and white striped small fish I could not identify and others I could remember but not name. After that idyll I returned to Sydney early in the morning to find my flat or apartment if you prefer, had been boarded up. Walking up from Central Railway I had indeed contemplated the possibility that someone might have broken into the place. How would I cope with it? Probably not well at 74. When I opened the door the world changed more profoundly than that. Fire had blown the windows out, blackened walls and ceiling, burned most of my furniture. The fire brigade had turned off the power so that all I could see in that Stygian gloom was blackened chaos. White powdered debris, melted plastic, seared books – though many were not destroyed. My bike was in the laundry, unharmed. My Luxman turntable, excellent amplifier and CD player etc. buried deep in soot and that curious white debris. I will never have record  playing equipment a fraction as good again. My book of beautiful reproductions and text re my favourite Georges Seurat vanished, though many of his paintings are in Painters Of The Petite Boulevarde. Many recordings survived. Many are gone. The heat blew the front windows out. Sorry, I have told you that. The flames reached the roof of the building. Many thought I was in there and looked at me when I arrived from Brisbane as on a ghost.

From my tiny room in the Ibis I walked about, past my old attic flat on Victoria Street, behind the Coca Cola sign, down Orwell Street where Mathew, Rebecca and I saw a fantastic filmed production of a Tchaikovsky ballet – Swan Lake? – and so on. I walked along William Street into the city and across to the art gallery where I spent some time looking at the two Picassos and at  two Grace Cossington Smith’s – ‘The Lacquer Room’ and the lesser known one of the Harbour Bridge during construction. For free. People I knew were surprised by my equanimity. Well, I surprised myself, but do not wish to exaggerate it.

After another day trying to get facilities hooked up, waiting all day and the next for an electrician, feeling like a prisoner in my own new flat, I went up the hill in the night to the glorious listening room Colbourne Avenue on St John’s Road. I had no idea who was on, and it was a tango duo. That is two young men from Buenos Aires playing guitar and bandoneon. It was a kind of chamber tango, but not lacking in rhythm and intensity. It relaxed me immediately with its delicate upward transpositions to a single point of bare audibility, its insistent but kindly rhythms.

These are different emotions yet we feel them instantly, or are they the same emotions differently expressed? Certainly you feel the universal emotions and also those that are exotic yet conventions as to expression in that culture. At one point hypnogogique images emerged suddenly in my head. People came jostling busily from a shaded lane into a brilliant narrow thoroughfare. I saw the sunlight so clearly it burned me. But who are these people? What is this feeling? Oddly it is a feeling from down near the beach in my childhood, when there were certainly people like these from several cultures, many fleeing Hitler and Mussolini. Some were older than I am now. Some have lost everything in bushfires and other catastrophes of the new land. I am very lucky. Yep. Yassir! Well, luckier than I might have been. Ah, but Painters Of The Petit Boulevard has gone, and so have James Joyce and Marcel Proust. And many others. These were part of the meaning of my life. I have some tiny insight on the loss of  art treasures and even small tokens of Jewish culture during World War 11. And greater tragedies than these. In the flat next door to ours lived Mr and Mrs Ronai and their daughter Robin, all Austrian Jews. On their walls were real paintings. Mr Ronai called to people to watch how I could distinguish so many colours, tones and shades. They were friends of ours, specially of our mother. Later they moved to a large house where Mons Avenue dives down toward the beach. Just before we went to Melbourne Robin Ronai died and then Mr Ronai. Mrs Ronai, what do I know?

Now it must seem that I am over-indulging in my small misfortune, but remember that in the past few years one sister died of cancer, my son Mathew also, Jenny Chan, the old Chinese lady who lived upstairs and was the perfect neighbour, two very close friends in musicians Bernie McGann and Dave Addes, my aunt Joan etc. etc. Nothing much seems to go right. Still I sometimes walk or ride at speed into the pure isolated present. The sunlight flickers, calling up the balmy air of a certain street.

2 Comments

  1. David Sampson – 5 March 2015 Reply

    Hi John,

    No you’re not over-indulging yourself. Not at all. Not even slightly. Oh God, what a shocking misfortune to befall you! Though it must seem that fate has latterly fixed you her crosshairs, I’m sure that you’re right to console yourself with thoughts of others and also what you still have left. Still … not just your flat but the books, the records, the audio equipment. It just seems so dreadfully unfair for someone like you whose music and art and literature aren’t an incidental backdrop but a part of their most intimately felt self.

    If it’s any small consolation, those of us who value you and all of your contributions feel acutely with you at this time. Is there anything that you need right away?

    All the best mate
    Dave Sampson

    P.S. I understand that it isn’t the point but I do hope that there was some insurance.

  2. Sean Wayland – 7 March 2015 Reply

    How dreadful! Not much I can do from Brooklyn but let me know of if you need any help!

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