Michelle Dicinoski reviews Dark Night Walking With McCahon by Martin Edmond
Reviewed by MICHELLE DICINOSKI
On April 11, 1984, the major New Zealand artist Colin McCahon disappeared unaccountably in the Sydney Botanic Gardens. McCahon and his wife Anne were visiting Sydney as guests of the Sydney Biennale when McCahon, then aged 64, disappeared during a walk through the gardens. He was found five or six kilometres away, disoriented and suffering memory loss, in a routine patrol of Centennial Park in the early hours of April 12. He carried no identification with him, and could not say who he was. When he was taken to hospital, he was diagnosed as suffering cerebral atrophy, probably the result of his long-term alcoholism.
What happened to McCahon during those lost hours? Where did he go, whom might he have met along the way, and what did he see on this “dark night”? These are the questions that provoked Martin Edmond to write Dark Night: Walking With McCahon, a creative non-fiction account of Edmond’s attempt to imagine, through walking the same part of Sydney, McCahon’s lost hours. Edmond explains:
I thought and thought about it, and at some point conceived the idea of replicating that lost journey—not in search of authenticity, nor documentary truth, nor even simple verisimilitude, since all of these were by definition impossible. Rather I wondered if I could arbitrarily choose a route and along it find equivalents for the fourteen Stations of the Cross?
The Stations of the Cross is a representation, in fourteen parts or ‘stations,’ of Christ’s last hours, beginning with his being condemned to death, and concluding with his death and entombment. In churches, visual depictions of the Stations of the Cross become stations through which worshippers pass on a circuit of devotion. Edmond’s decision to try to encounter McCahon and map equivalents for the Stations of the Cross through this ‘arbitrary’ route is not itself an arbitrary choice: McCahon’s work engaged with matters of faith, though he himself was not religious—“not anything”, as he strikingly put it.
Dark Night is structured in four parts. The first, “Testimony,” describes how Edmond’s life has briefly connected with McCahon’s in a few instances. Most importantly, Edmond spent his childhood in a bedroom in which a McCahon painting hung on the wall. The painting fascinated Edmond even as a small child; his curiosity with the artist and his art has been lifelong. The second, and longest, section, “Psychogeography,” describes Edmond’s journey through what might have the route that McCahon took in his lost hours, a route which is structured around the Stations of the Cross and ends in Centennial Park. The third section, “Dark Night,” describes a night spent in Centennial Park itself, and the fourth, “Beatitude,” takes Edmond back to New Zealand in a kind of coda.
As perhaps may be evident from this structure, Dark Night is ambitious, but it also meanders, in the sense that it is willing to follow and linger along the routes of a curious mind, however non-linear those routes may be. Initially, it seems that Edmond is setting out in pursuit of something, though what it may be is unclear. What the book becomes, however, is something else. Edmond produces a kind of meticulous account of a small stretch of a city, a detailed and sharply observed portrait of Sydney a decade into the 21st century. It is a city of convenience stores and pubs, of homeless men sleeping in doorways, “each with his hands tucked between his thighs the way little children sometimes sleep,” of midnight parks in which the author claims to see the trees breathing.
As he walks, Edmond also muses on a remarkable range of topics: his own father’s alcoholism, methods of crucifixion, how Torahs are constructed, the sex trade at the Wall, the development of Christian Science. When we roam with Edmond, we roam not only across the physical spaces of Sydney, but also more extensively through Edmond’s mind and the connections that he makes across time and space, between an older and a newer Sydney, and between his own life and McCahon’s, between the city and its people. He wonders about meaning, and connection, and creativity, and about faith and its absence, and how they affect lives generally, and McCahon’s life and work in particular.
The structure of the book is shaped by its author’s range of interests, by his musings, and also, inevitably, by the impossibility of resolving his questions about McCahon. As Edmond himself remarks, quoting from a Pasternak poem: “To live a life is not to cross a field.” Edmond has worked as a cab driver, and his range of knowledge and his way of telling stories—picking up here and dropping off there—in some ways reflects the episodic nature of that work. But this is a book that is walking paced, and seen from the footpath rather than the street. Edmond is a flâneur, a stroller of the city, a walker who seeks to know the mind of another man by walking, and by spending a long night on a park bench.
One of the book’s greatest achievements is its depiction of Sydney now, in a now that has inevitably already passed. Edmond records highly specific details: how much change he has ($27.75) after paying his train fare ($3.80) to the city, the schooner he buys (Reschs, $5) at a pub (The East Sydney Hotel), and the discussion about the tenth Doctor Who, David Tennant, that takes place as he orders, the prints on the pub’s walls (Magritte, van Gogh, Cartier-Bresson). He describes churches, homeless shelters, excavation work, convict graffiti, contemporary graffiti, prostitutes, taxi drivers, revellers emerging from a gay club at dawn. His depiction of himself can be just as precise: he carries with him on one of his journeys “a thermos of black coffee laced with St Agnes brandy; a ham, cheese, and tomato sandwich; a banana; a tin or Café Cremes, ten small cigars of the vanilla-flavoured variety called Oriental”—along with warmer clothing and two different translations of St John of the Cross’s poem “Dark Night of the Soul.”
Dark Night is a serious book with extensive research behind it, as can be expected of a work that is, at least in part, a biography. Edmond has written across a range of genres, including screenplays and poetry, and his exacting care for language is quite delightful. His descriptions of places are particularly striking, as when he writes of visiting a friend in an art deco building, Mont Clair, on Liverpool Street in Darlinghurst in the 1990s:
the air inside Mont Clair was cool and smelled strange, like embalming fluid or formaldehyde; a wan yellow light fell across the dark varnished wood from deco lamps high up on the walls and the vacant concierge’s booth always felt inhabited by some phantom interlocutor. The lift clanked and sighed in protest as it hauled me upwards and my reflection in the mirrors with which it was lined always looked vaguely corrupt if not actually demonic. The other residents in the building were rarely seen and, when spotted, seemed pale and affrighted …
And so Edmond takes us there, through Sydney past and present, and all its ghosts, in search of another kind of ghost. It is what we can see—a remarkable city, a fascinated and fascinating writer—that makes the lasting impression. McCahon, the brilliant artist, is a fugitive here, as perhaps he was in life. But what Edmond finds in his pursuit makes for a memorable portrait of a city and a man —not the man who came to Sydney in 1984 and was lost, but the man who came a quarter of a century later and tried to understand.
MICHELLE DICINOSKI’s memoir Ghost Wife will be published by Black Inc. in 2013. Her poetry collection Electricity for Beginners was highly commended in the Anne Elder Award 2011, and she was awarded a Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship (Poetry) in 2012-2013. She lives in Brisbane.