In his autobiographical novel The Kindness of Women
, JG Ballard describes an experiment with drugs at the end of the 1960s. Encouraged by a film camera, Ballard dropped acid in the study at the back of his semi-detached house in Shepparton; a girlfriend had pre-emptively evacuated his children, taking them to picnic beside the nearby Thames.
LSD transformed Shepparton from a rather dowdy dormitory suburb of London into a carnival of light, and Ballard soon found himself shambling happily down the road, admiring the spiralling carnations and exploding roses in his neighbours’ front yards. The day after the experiment, though, the magic spell expired, and Shepparton suddenly seemed to Ballard like a place of almost Arctic bleakness. It was as though all the colour and energy latent in the suburb had been summoned and then expended by the author’s LSD vision.
Ballard decided not to take acid again, reasoning that he should be more interested in perceiving what is wondrous and yet readily apparent than in altering the appearances of the world with drugs.
I share the attitude towards hallucinogens that Ballard settles on in The Kindness of Women
. It seems to me that the world is so complicated and unpredictable that a drug like LSD could only simplify it, by converting its changing nuances into a series of images which seem, all too often, to be sourced from second-rate fantasy novels and old Pink Floyd album covers.
Over the past couple of years, though, I have been involved in an intermittent, haphazard and largely undocumented series of experiments with a drug which is, in its own modest way, vision-inducing. A series of doctors have have prescribed me tramadol, a synthetic pain killer which works in a similar manner to morphine, in response to the pain caused by an old nerve injury in my left arm.
Tramadol will never be a glamorous drug. It tends to induce, even in very small quantities, a sweaty giddiness. It cannot be taken in large quantities, lest it cause serious liver damage. It cannot be combined with large quantities of alcohol, or it begins to tinker with its user’s respiratory system. The drug pushes me to bed, but it makes me sleep very lightly; again and again, as the night wears on, I wake for a second or two, then lapse back into something resembling unconsciousness. I can sleep in this broken way for eight hours, then rise from bed convinced that I have spent the whole night wide awake.
Perhaps the most interesting side effect of tramadol – perhaps the only interesting side effect of tramadol – concerns dreaming. Because it makes me sleep so lightly, tramadol gives me vivid, prolonged, and very detailed dreams. Often a dream takes the form of a narrative which is built up, detail by detail, between moments of wakefulness, and then repeated, complete with interruptions and minor variations, night after night. In the winter of 2009 I blogged about a dream
that had visited me repeatedly, and posted a sort of prose poem I had made out of it. This autumn, as the weather cools, the nerves in my arm awaken, and I turn again to tramadol, I am being visited by a new dream.
The new dream has been prompted, or at least abetted, by a book which my brother and sister-in-law gave me on my most recent birthday. Perhaps noting my fondness for the beer they keep in their downstairs fridge, they gifted me a guide to New Zealand boozing holes called Pubs with Personality
. The text of the book exists mainly to fill the spaces between the photos of Edwardian fake wood facades and grinning publicans and magnificently bulging beer bellies; it offers up a mixture of clichés, uninteresting trivia, and unreliable oral folklore. An entry on the Waipapakauri Hotel provides one of the text’s more diverting details, when it mentions that the establishment, which sits opposite a wide flat paddock just north of Kaitaia, was taken over and run by the Royal New Zealand Air Force during World War Two.
The paddock across the road from the Waipapakauri boozer had been promoted to an airfield, so that military craft – American Liberator bombers and transporters, mostly – bound for bases and battlefields in the central Pacific could refuel before they left Te Ika a Maui on their way north. In the 1940s not even large planes like the Liberator had the ability to make the sort of long-haul flights which are routine today; Waipapakuari was only one stepping stone on the way to Guadalcanal or New Guinea. From the runway north of Kaitaia planes might get as far as Norfolk Island or New Caledonia, before having to descend and once again refuel.
The dream begins not in Waipapakauri, but in that part of New Zealand where mountains are so large and numerous that it is possible, for a while at least, to forget the sea, and to imagine oneself at the centre of a continent, rather than at the top of a narrow isolated island.
I am sitting in a Liberator which has been converted from a bomber to a mere transport plane, a mule of the skies, with its tail guns replaced by tail lights, and its fuselage widened, and its holding bay loaded with some cargo more precious than bombs – shitpaper and bottled milk and vials of morphine for the field hospital at Guadalcanal, perhaps, or love letters licked and perfumed by the fiances and widows-in-waiting of Christchurch and Nightcaps and Invercargill.
The orange light from a modest control tower winks discreetly through the morning’s mist and sleet and light snow. I am sitting in the cockpit of the Liberator, but my hands fidget with the corners of a map, rather than with the levers and buttons of a control panel. I have a cigarette, burnt down almost to its end, in my mouth, and an uncapped bottle of whiskey in my lap. My companion, whose name I do not know, or else knew and have forgotten, has his hands on what looks implausibly like the steering wheel of a car. His moustache twitches, as he checks the gyroscope, then pulls at some obscure lever, then says something I cannot hear over the excitement of the revving engines.
As we climb through the storm that has – how do I know this? – grounded us for days, I decide that the weather, like an aircraft, is a mechanical contraption, which might be set in motion by a whim or order, but is nevertheless subject to its own laws and limitations, and liable to malfunction at the least convenient times.
Now we are in the sunlight, above the fake snow-drifts and glaciers of the clouds, and moving improbably quickly. The clouds melt away as we cross the Cook Strait. After the shoals of islands in the Malborough Sounds Kapiti looks odd on its own, like a huge black whale which has gotten separated from its companions and surfaced, in confusion, close to the coast.
I can’t resist reminding my companion, who is resetting his thick rubber goggles on his high forehead, that Kapiti Island is the last remnant of the ancient land bridge between the North and South sections of our country. “We don’t need a bridge anymore." His voice is low, but the engine is now working silently, and I have no difficulty in hearing him. “We’ve got the sky.”
For a few minutes we exchange the whiskey bottle like small talk. We pass over Auckland, which I decide to consider a land bridge between the Waikato and Northland, rather than as anything so pointlessly temporary as a city.
The strip at Waipapakauri is filled with neat rows of parked planes: converted and unconverted Liberators, smaller active service craft like Corsairs, and a few of the ridiculous Tiger Moth biplanes New Zealand’s little air force still uses to train recruits. Beside the pub someone has raised four flagpoles made from the trunks of middle-aged puriri; I can see the stumps of amputated branches.
Between the stars and stripes, the Union Jack, and New Zealand’s sadly derivative national flag, a plain white banner crumples and uncrumples in the northbound wind. “Has someone hung their bedsheet up from that pole to dry?” I ask my co-pilot, whose name is suddenly O’Shannessy, as we walk towards the hotel. “I don’t know what you’re getting at” he replies, without pausing, or even looking at me.
The bar is empty except for a group of American pilots, resplendent in their beige dress uniform, who beckon us to their table as soon as we have bought our beers. We drink together silently, until one of the Americans suddenly shouts “No rifles inside the hotel!”
Half a dozen figures – two teenagers and four bulging, balding men – stand rather uncertainly on the threshold of the pub. “Dallies and Maoris” another of the Americans mutters. “Locals. Amateurs. Too raw or too rotten for the draft. Those rifles are broomsticks. They’ve got nothing real to drill with.” He turns towards me, and raises his voice. “Your country is fucked, mate. Fucked.” He turns toward the entranceway. “Are you boys going to fly to Midway on those broomsticks and tackle the Japs?’ One of the older men in the doorway turns his stick in a slow circle then holds it above his head, as though it is a taiaha and he is about to perform a war dance. “I’ll stick it up your arse, if you keep talking”, he drawls, in his Slavic-Maori accent.
O’Shannessy and I have finished our beers; we start, without discussion, for the door. The Home Guardsman holds his broomstick-taiaha in front of me, blocking my way out to the sunlight and the field of revving engines. “The branch is broken” he tells me, with a look of improbable solemnity. I don’t understand. “The branch is broken, the bough is broken. On the tree, the pohutukawa, at Reinga. Too many spirits have used it. Too many wars, too many taua. Too much sickness, smallpox, tuberculosis. The Spanish Lady too. Too many leaning on the branch, letting themselves down, on the way to Spirits Bay, to the underworld. To Hawai’iki. The branch is broken.”
I still don’t understand, but decide that a few words might help clear my way. “That’s interesting. What must one do, without the branch?” I ask. “Jump” he replies quickly, shuffling out of my way. "You have to jump. There’s no other way to Hawai’iki now.”
Outside it is suddenly hot. The ground crew, who are dressed in nothing but sandals and khaki shorts – O’Shannessy mutters something about “Chinese coolies” – have finished refuelling our plane.
We climb quickly. On Houhora harbour the launches are as still as buoys, and I remind myself that in a time of war there can be no petrol rations for pleasure craft. The low brown humps of Mount Camel on the northern side of the harbour seem ridiculous, pretentious, after the peaks and glaciers of the south.
“I’d like to see the tree” I say suddenly to O’Shannessy, who is dragging us higher and higher. “The pohutukawa, at Cape Reinga. Can we drop altitude for a while?”
I can remember the story now, the story I was told at school, will be told at school, decades in the future, in the 1980s, when the Maori renaissance is entering the institutions, when assimilationism has finally been abandoned as state policy, when the principal of Drury Primary School accedes to the demands of a new curriculum by dropping into our classroom just before lunch break and teaching us to sing the national anthem in atrocious Maori, or by rambling in his familiar, avuncular way about some Maori myth or another, the Maoris are a very superstitious people they believe in all sorts of peculiar things for instance when their bodies die their ghosts come out it’s a normal thing for them just like the Hindoos boys and girls I was in India during the war and the Hindoos believe it too the ghost climbs out of the body like say the way a diver climbs out of his diving suit not a soul not a Christian soul no and the ghost doesn’t go to heaven the ghost goes to the Cape to Cape Reinga it swings off the old pohutukawa there on its way to Hawaii now girls and boys how many of you have gone Caping Lois and I did one Christmas in the caravan the road is awful gravel and potholes and hardly any pubs and as for Hawaii it’s too expensive for a school principal let alone the average Maori I suppose they can always wait ‘til they die it’s good to have something to look forward to
“We can’t do it.” O’Shannessy’s moustache twitches irritably. “Have to conserve fuel. We’ve been allotted just enough for the mission.”
Once again, I don’t understand. “What mission? Where are we headed?” My mind shuffles the possibilities – Norfolk Island, a place so small it gets lost after dark, when housewives hang black sheets on windows for fear of Japanese bombers; New Caledonia, a higher, rockier version of Northland, inexplicably populated by Melanesians and French; Tongatapu, where the Americans poured thousands of tonnes of cement over fields of taro and yam, and employed the displaced farmers as airport porters and cleaners…
“Hawai’iki. We’re going to Hawai’iki. I wish you’d read the command sheet.” O’Shannessy scratches his upper lip in an effort to hide or emphasise his annoyance. “Be there soon, anyhow.”
I look down, and see a long ragged line of surf where the Tasman Sea collides with the Pacific Ocean north of Cape Reinga. North East Island floats in the distance, as flat and bleak as the deck of an aircraft carrier.
The idea, I realise, makes a good deal of sense. The branch of the old tree at Reinga has evidently broken; even if it had not broken, some more efficient method of travelling to the ancestral homeland – to the ancient life, the afterlife – would surely be required. And wouldn't it be much more comfortable to jump the distance in a converted Liberator, rather than having to shimmy down a pohutukawa branch, then float over the rough water off Reinga towards the passage that leads to Hawai’iki? Jump, that is the sensible thing to do.
“Who are we carrying, then, to Hawai’iki?” I ask O’Shanessy.“Who have we got in the back?” The moustache twitches under his ring finger. “Just ourselves. We bring ourselves. I wish you’d read the command sheet.”
Now I remember, or think I remember, snow and sleet falling on a prone aeroplane, and mountains rising on every side of the wreck, and the glacier as sharp as a reef, and the avalanche that came like a huge wave, and the cave we dug with bare hands in the snow it left, and the matches that had to be struck twenty, thirty times before they gave a few seconds’ light, and the intricate ugliness of O’Shanessy’s face, the cuts and the bruises and the moustache turned white and the frostbite blooming like leprosy, and the stiff feeling of the body when I hugged it, and the way my toes, my fingers seemed to disappear, one by one, to melt, as I lay quietly in the dark…
“Here it is.” O’Shannessy is dropping altitude. “On your right.” I had imagined a high forested island, with its peaks hidden by mist or cloud, but the ground below us is flat, and covered with intricately divided cultivations. I can see a lagoon, so calm it might be a lake, and a double-hulled waka tied to a stone wharf by three lengths of rope.
“Potatoes, yams. Taro in the irrigation ditches. Stone tools and no fertilisers, but they pull in a good harvest. If the Japs get hungry enough they might raid this place.” A man bends over double, does something with his hands in the dirt, scrambles a couple of yards, bends lower. Coconut palms shake their heads affirmatively, as we drop lower, and the dark blur on our right wing turns back into a propeller.
“Aren’t we going to land somewhere?” I ask, more in puzzlement than fear.
O’Shannessy laughs for the first time. “How can I land? There are no runways here, there's nowhere to land. We’re going to crash. Mission accomplished.”
For a moment or two the coconut palms seem to grow up towards us.[Footnote: I've realised that Kendrick Smithyman had a hand in this dream
. Can dreams be guilty of plagiarism?]