Tuesday, May 02, 2023

The Road Not Taken

Richard von Sturmer: doppelgänger (9/12/2020)

The Interrupted Journey

Yesterday I packed up my office at the University of Waikato and am now back in Auckland. When I was passing the photo wall in the foyer of the Arts building, I saw you and wondered, “What is Jack doing here?” Looking closer, your hair was the wrong colour. But in the background there was the message “Ross the face of.” Sort of Yoda-speak. It left me rather confused. And why are you, if it is you, why are you holding up an illustrated map of the Central North Island? I’m still a bit perplexed.
- Richard von Sturmer, email to JR (9/12/2020)
When Richard sent me the image above with the query: ‘Is this you?’ I too felt quite perplexed. The photo does indeed look quite a lot like me. The words ROSS THE FACE OF are also unequivocal, but the Central North Island is certainly not a region with which I have any particular affinity. My roots lie more in Northland.

Another interesting thing about it is that it shows a middle-aged man with full cheeks, narrow-rimmed glasses and ruffled orange hair. I have the full cheeks and the glasses, but my hair is dark brown going on grey. I did once have it dyed, in a moment of feverish reinvention, during a trek in Thailand. The idea was to go blond, but unfortunately, due to the hairdresser’s unfamiliarity with European hair, it came out orange instead.

So, yes, I did once have hair to match that in the picture, but I was much thinner and younger-looking then – it was more than two decades ago – so while all those attributes have certainly belonged to me at one point or another, I never had them all at the same time: in this part of the multiverse, at any rate.

Gabriel White: Jack in Mumbai (15/1/2002)

Another perturbing recent event involved one of those late night searches to confirm your own existence, which in this case took the form of a series of clicks on the ISBN codes for my own books.

Most of them were fine – they duly led to the publication in question – but one of them came up with quite another book. Presumably the National Library had made a mistake, and confused one obscure small publication with another. I had a lot of problems with that book, in fact: it was an anthology of student life writing, and I decided to title it [your name here] in order to gesture (as I thought cleverly), at the essential interchangeability of all such human experiences.

Unfortunately the librarians took that title to be a mere stand-in for the actual title still to come, and refused to list it in their catalogue under that appellation. I had to explain to them again and again just what I had in mind before they would relent. Indexing a title which begins with a square bracket also offers some unique challenges for both human and machine intelligence.

I wonder if John Ashbery had the same problems with his own 1998 book of poems Your Name Here, which appeared a few years after my stroke of bravado? Whether he did or not, any merit there may have been in this jeu d’esprit has now been eclipsed by the so-many-times-brighter magnitude of his star.

All of which brings me to the principal pretext for this meditation. The other day I made a surprising find: a large grey volume of variations and additions to Georges Perec’s famed 1979 short story ‘Le Voyage d’hiver’ [The Winter Journey] by members of the European experimental literature club Oulipo [[OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle] = Workshop of Potential Literature].

Georges Perec / Oulipo. Le Voyage d’hiver & ses suites. Postface de Jacques Roubaud. La Librairie du XXIe Siècle. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2013.

The reason this seemed so strange is that I’m the only local Perec enthusiast I know of (despite all my best efforts to turn others onto his work), so it’s hard to see how this particular volume ended up, second-hand, in a vintage bookshop in Auckland.

What’s more, this particular story is probably my favourite among all of his fictions. It has a strange atmospheric charm to it which seems – to me at least – almost to outweigh its admittedly intriguing hypothesis.

The conceit of the story is that a single author, Hugo Vernier, wrote an obscure book in the mid-nineteenth century which anticipated not just the ideas but even the verbal substance of most of the greatest works of French poetry from Baudelaire onwards. Unfortunately the one copy of this work seen and scrutinised by the protagonist is torn from him by the fortunes of war. His Winterreise, winter journey, takes place in 1940, just before the fall of France, and he is never able to relocate the book subsequently.

The various members of Oulipo run with this basic idea of anticipation and turn it into an extraordinary farrago of counter-plots involving Hitler, J. Edgar Hoover, and a whole raft of Journeys here, there and everywhere.

A good deal of the merit of Perec’s story comes from its brevity. This book of sequels is over 400 pages long. So where did it come from? How did it end up on the neglected ‘foreign language’ shelf of a city bookshop? Did it belong to some visiting scholar, compelled to abandon their luggage by the demands of the coronavirus? Or a local experimental literature fanatic, who either read and forgot it, or else found the somewhat demanding idiom of some of the stories beyond their linguistic abilities?

Not that I found them particularly easy going either. The only way I got through them, in fact, was to ration myself to just one of the 26 voyages per diem (a device I’ve employed before to get through seemingly impossible reading tasks: the whole of Proust in French, for instance, or the multiple discursive volumes of Casanova’s memoirs).

Most of the stories in the Oulipo book are predictable enough: more-or-less ingenious variations on the forest of themes built up by their predecessors – since the concept of this group of stories as a ‘roman collectif’ appears to have arisen fairly early in the piece.

As I kept on reading, though, the conviction that they’d somehow missed the point of Perec’s story grew and grew. His protagonist’s fortuitous discovery of Vernier’s book is the central moment in his existence mainly because he allows it to be. The rest of his life is spent in a futile search for it as a way of recovering not so much the artefact itself as that lost moment.

It was, after all, the last instant at which France – or even European civilisation – could be said to have been truly itself, before the events of June 1940, the Nazis processing through Paris, the long inexorable ‘Night and Fog’ of the occupation.

Vernier’s book was an apport from an unknown, frankly impossible past. Its very existence adds to but does not cause the uncanny atmosphere of Perec’s story, one of the last he was to publish before his untimely death at the age of 45.

The photo of my double must surely be an apport, too. It exists because Richard snapped a picture of the picture and sent it to me. Even he, however, didn’t know of the coppery hair. Its true significance was hidden from him.

Is it a fetch, then, in the form of a doppelgänger? Or, that even more sinister portent, a Vardøger? The photo of me with red hair was taken on top of a building in Mumbai. I’ve never been back to India since then, so is this a reminder to resume my pilgrimage?

I have a strong sense of a fork in the path of my destiny back in the early 1990s, when I chose to return to Auckland instead of staying in Palmerston North. Is the face in Richard’s photo that of my might-have-been? He looks cheerful enough, but with something a little haunted about the eyes.

One thing is certain, this discovery sets up choices. One is to try to return to that moment, my own Morgenlandfahrt, my Journey to the East. Another is to ignore it totally, and hope it’s not the bad omen such sightings so often seem to be. The other – which I think I may now end up choosing – is to listen to the voice of the thunder, resume the interior journey, and reform my life.


The Road Not Taken: A Global Short Story Journey. Maurice A. Lee & Aaron Penn. USA: Lee and Penn Publishing, 2023.

That's not quite where the story ends, though. I sent the piece printed above to the editor of local literary journal brief shortly after finishing it, and it was accepted for issue 57, which was due to appear in 2021. I even received some proofs to correct, but it has (alas) never materialised.

Given the last issue of brief came out some four and a half years ago, in 2018, I suspect now (I hope I'm wrong) that it never will, and that brief must be added to that illustrious list of New Zealand alternative literary magazines which have now, unfortunately, departed the scene.

I felt that a year and a half was probably long enough to wait before sending it elsewhere. The trouble with that, though, it that it's such a "brief" piece of work, comprehensible within that setting, but a bit too allusive and offbeat for most other editors.

I was, therefore, a bit surprised to receive an email a few days ago informing me of the appearance of the anthology pictured above. I do remember sending them a story a year or so ago, but had no particular expectation of ever seeing it in print.

What really astonished me was the title, though. It's not that it's an unfamiliar one. Most people have at least heard of Robert Frost's poem, even if they haven't actually read it. If not, here it is to remind you:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

David McCoy: Robert Frost & Edward Thomas (composite image)

The poem was, according to Frost, written about his friend, fellow-poet Edward Thomas, and his eccentric way of taking a walk.

Thomas chose to go off to war, to the Western Front, where he was killed by a shell on April 9th, 1917. Frost returned to America, where he became probably the most famous and honoured (though also, possibly, the most feared and hated) poet of his generation.

Which of them took the right path? We'll never know.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Zero at the Bone

[all photographs: Bronwyn Lloyd]

i.m. Zero Tolerance Lloyd-Ross
(c. November 2007-21st April 2023)

We're devastated by the loss of our delightful companion Zero, who left this world - hopefully for a better one - on Friday.

I don't really have any words to express how much she's meant to us over the fifteen and a bit years we were privileged to have her with us. Instead, I thought I'd put up some photos of her over the course of her life, together with a few poems I wrote about her during this time.

Hail and farewell, beloved friend. We'll never stop missing you.

Zero at the bone

The dark looniness
of your leaping
worries me

no pause to reflect
furry paws

food comfort sleep
combine in
strange parentheses

(just like the town
they found you in

post-Xmas traffic)
beating up
poor Smudge

before you’d met us
now hounding

forgiving? maybe

roving emblem
of desire

claws outspread

This is an early piece, written shortly after she first came to us. She was certainly a very spirited kitten! Later on she calmed down a little, but she never ceased to have strong views on a number of issues. It first appeared in the anthology below:

Our Own Kind: 100 New Zealand poems about animals. Ed. Siobhan Harvey (Auckland: Godwit, 2009): 67-68.

Zero is lying down today

but little specks of blood
on the bedspread
make me think

she may have run into
one of her twin nemeses
last night

a big fat greedy
green-collared glutton

or Brindle
a raccoon-tailed

each of whom
sneaks in the back door
several times a day

to eat her food
she jumps out
hisses at them

but is only a little cat
once or twice we’ve seen
them ganging up on her

unable to help her
unless it’s in plain sight
I suppose that’s it

our little cat
so wilful

has become the thing
we most fear losing

yet cannot safeguard
threaten to crush
with the sheer weight

of our love

This poem makes Zero sound like a bit of a victim, and it's true that she was bullied from time to time by larger neighbouring cats. She never provoked these fights, but she always gave as good as she got. Later on most of these cats seem to have moved away, so the last few years of her life were almost entirely free of such squabbles. The poem first appeared in Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2020, edited by Johanna Emeney, and subsequently in the book below:

The Oceanic Feeling. Drawings by Katharina Jaeger. Afterword by Bronwyn Lloyd (Auckland: Salt & Greyboy Press, 2021): 21.

All I want

is for every moment
of every day

to be constant bliss
for Zero

Astyanax cringing
from his daddy’s helmet

safe in his mother’s arms

watching enslaved
as Achilles’ son

throws her baby off
the walls

if only I could wish away
fast cars on the road

trespassing neighbour cats
basements with tempting doors

shut after her
lead nailspoison baits

the loss of a furry friend
is the sack of Troy

by the Greeks

This poem, written late last year, sounds uncomfortably prophetic to me now. The reference to Andromache's baby Astyanax being frightened by his father Hector's plume is from Homer's Iliad [Bk 6, ll.466-502]. His death at the hands of Achilles' son Neoptolemus is reported in Euripides' Trojan Women [ll.719-25]. The last two lines are a paraphrase of the quote below:
Someone has said that the death of a mouse by cancer is the whole sack of Rome by the Goths
- Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)

Monday, April 03, 2023

SF Luminaries: John Christopher

The Tripods (1984-85)

"John Christopher" - aka Christopher Youd, Samuel Youd (his real name), Hilary Ford, William Godfrey, Peter Graaf, Peter Nichols, William Vine, and Stanley Winchester - is perhaps best remembered for his YA SF series The Tripods, dramatised - rather poorly - by the BBC a couple of decades after the trilogy first appeared.

John Christopher: The Tripods Tetralogy (1967-88)

Concentrating solely on his 'second life' as a YA author would be to sell him short, though. His earlier adult novels have often been characterised - mostly by people who haven't read them - as imitations of fellow Brit John Wyndham's crossover megahit The Day of the Triffids (1951).

John Christopher: The Death of Grass (1956)

This may hold some truth for one or two of them - The World in Winter (1962), for instance - but even the Wyndham-influenced Death of Grass (1956) occupies a distinctly fiercer and more troubled space in the post-apocalyptic landscape than the older writer's "cosy catastrophes" (in Brian Aldiss's phrase). It's this brutal and uncompromising flavour which makes his work particularly relevant to readers today.

As you'll see from the bibliography here, Youd began writing novels under his own name, then under a succession of other pseudonyms, each tailored to one of his many interests. It was as "John Christopher" that he achieved his greatest commercial (and probably artistic) success, however:
I read somewhere ... that I have been cited as the greatest serial killer in fictional history, having destroyed civilisation in so many different ways – through famine, freezing, earthquakes, feral youth combined with religious fanaticism, and progeria.
- quoted on his Goodreads author page

John Christopher: The Caves of Night (1958)

These early novels were all thrillers of one type or another, but not all of them can be classified as Sci-fi. The Caves of Night is about a group of amateur speleologists lost in an unknown cave system, and The Long Voyage (which I've discussed in more detail here) describes the strange odyssey of a ship that drifts through the North Sea to the ice-packs of Greenland.

John Christopher: The Guardians (1970)

The first of his novels I myself read was The Guardians. I got it for my birthday one year, and it made an indelible impression on me. There was a sharpness and precision to the writing which I hadn't really encountered before. He didn't seem to pull any punches for his "juvenile" audience. In fact it's clear in retrospect that he found these shorter narrative units particularly suited to his talents.

John Christopher: The Prince in Waiting trilogy (1970-72)

Perhaps the high point of his talent is the brilliantly original - and terrifying - "Prince in Waiting" books. The protagonist Luke was, I think, my very first antihero. Camus's Meursault, Greene's whisky priest, Joyce's Leopold Bloom, none of them surprised me as much as the bitter, scheming, unrepentant hero of these three vividly imagined novels.

After that the temperature of his writing began to cool off a little. Had he gone too far for Puffin Books? Certainly the successors to The Prince in Waiting were mostly one-offs, and the "Fireball" trilogy, when it finally arrived, was a bit of a disappointment.

But then I don't think it really matters where you start with John Christopher. The "adult" novels are not really significantly more demanding - or terrifying - than the children's ones. My favourite of them all remains The Long Voyage - it's the one I keep on coming back to - but I suppose his most dazzling achievement would have to be The Prince in Waiting and its sequels.

Whichever of them you choose to read, though, you certainly won't be wasting your time. He's long outlasted the era he wrote in, and only a few of his books are still in print. They're worth snapping up when you see them, though. I still have a couple of them I'm looking for, but fewer and fewer bookshops now maintain those tatty shelves of SF paperback which used to be such a happy hunting ground for fans like me.

John Christopher: The Fireball trilogy (1981-86)

Sam Youd (1929-2018)

Sam Youd ['John Christopher']

John Christopher: The Year of the Comet (1955)


  1. The Year of the Comet [US: Planet in Peril (1959)] (1955)
    • The Year of the Comet. 1955. London: Sphere Books, 1978.
  2. The Death of Grass [US: No Blade of Grass (1957)] (1956)
    • The Death of Grass. 1956. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963.
  3. The Caves of Night (1958)
    • The Caves of Night. 1958. London: Panther, 1962.
  4. A Scent of White Poppies (1959)
  5. The Long Voyage [US: The White Voyage] (1960)
    • The Long Voyage. 1960. London: Sphere books, 1986.
  6. The World in Winter [US: The Long Winter] (1962)
    • The World in Winter. 1962. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.
  7. Cloud on Silver [US: Sweeney's Island] (1964)
    • Cloud on Silver. 1964. Hodder Paperbacks. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1966.
  8. The Possessors (1964)
    • The Possessors. 1964. London: Sphere books, 1978.
  9. A Wrinkle in the Skin [US: The Ragged Edge] (1965)
    • A Wrinkle in the Skin. 1965. London: Sphere books, 1978.
  10. The Little People (1966)
  11. Pendulum (1968)
    • Pendulum. 1968. Hodder Paperbacks. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1969.
  12. Bad Dream (2003)

  13. Short Stories:

  14. The Twenty-Second Century (1954)

  15. YA Fiction:

  16. The Tripods trilogy:
    1. The White Mountains. 1967. Rev. ed. (2003)
    2. The City of Gold and Lead (1967)
    3. The Pool of Fire (1968)
    • The Tripods Trilogy: The White Mountains; The City of Gold and Lead; The Pool of Fire. 1967 & 1968. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.
  17. The Lotus Caves (1969)
    • The Lotus Caves. 1969. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.
  18. The Guardians (1970)
    • The Guardians. 1970. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
  19. The Sword of the Spirits trilogy
    1. The Prince In Waiting (1970)
    2. Beyond the Burning Lands (1971)
    3. The Sword of the Spirits (1972)
    • The Prince in Waiting Trilogy: The Prince In Waiting; Beyond the Burning Lands; The Sword of the Spirits. 1970, 1971 & 1972. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.
  20. In the Beginning. Structural Readers (1972)
  21. Dom and Va (1973)
    • Dom and Va. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973.
  22. Wild Jack (1974)
    • Wild Jack. 1974. A Beaver Book. London: Hamish Hamilton Children’s Books, 1978.
  23. Empty World (1977)
    • Empty World. 1977. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.
  24. The Fireball trilogy
    1. Fireball (1981)
      • Fireball. Fireball Trilogy, 1. 1981. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.
    2. New Found Land (1983)
      • New Found Land. Fireball Trilogy, 2. 1983. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.
    3. Dragon Dance (1986)
      • Dragon Dance. Fireball Trilogy, 3. 1986. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.
  25. When the Tripods Came (1988)
    • When the Tripods Came. 1988. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.
  26. A Dusk of Demons (1993)
    • A Dusk of Demons. 1993. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994.

  27. John Christopher: A Dusk of Demons (1993)

    as Christopher Youd:

  28. The Winter Swan (1949)

  29. as Samuel Youd:

  30. Babel Itself (1951)
  31. Brave Conquerors (1952)
  32. Crown and Anchor (1953)
  33. A Palace of Strangers (1954)
  34. Holly Ash [US: The Opportunist] (1955)
  35. Giant's Arrow [UK: as Anthony Rye] ((1956)
  36. The Burning Bird [US: The Choice (1961)
  37. Messages of Love (1961)
  38. The Summers at Accorn (1963)

  39. as William Godfrey:

  40. Malleson at Melbourne (1956)
  41. The Friendly Game (1957)

  42. as William Vine:

  43. "Death Sentence". Imagination Science Fiction (June 1953)
  44. "Explosion Delayed". Space Science Fiction (July 1953)

  45. as Peter Graaf:

  46. The Joe Dust Series:
    1. Dust and the Curious Boy [US: Give the Devil His Due] (1957)
    2. Daughter Fair (1958)
    3. The Sapphire Conference (1959)
  47. The Gull's Kiss (1962)

  48. as Hilary Ford:

  49. Felix Walking (1958)
  50. Felix Running (1959)
  51. Bella on the Roof (1965)
  52. A Figure in Grey (1973)
  53. Sarnia (1974)
  54. Castle Malindine (1975)
  55. A Bride for Bedivere (1976)

  56. as Peter Nichols:

  57. Patchwork of Death (1965)

  58. as Stanley Winchester:

  59. The Practice (1968)
  60. Men With Knives [US: A Man With a Knife] (1968)
  61. The Helpers (1970)
  62. Ten Per Cent of Your Life (1973)

John Christopher: Bad Dream (2003)