Olwyn Stewart pens a farewell to friend, poet and playwright David Lyndon Brown, who passed away late last year.
My friendship with David Lyndon Brown began sometime in the very early nineties, at Poetry Live in the Shakespeare Tavern. One night he asked me to read a poem of his to the audience, whether out of shyness or the desire to hear it in a female voice I cannot remember – in fact I cannot even remember which poem it was. I only recall that I was drunk and read it badly.
Nonetheless, we became good friends, and we are still good friends – death does not end a friendship. It does, however, end an important component of a friendship. Now, when I mull over some past conversation or other, about something like the meaning of a word or the easiest way to peel a capsicum, and a light turns on and I think, “Aha! Now I see what you meant when you said…” there is no David around anymore to answer. So the friendship goes on, but its conversation ended at 2.45pm, on December 30, 2015, at the Mercy Hospice on College Hill Rd. David won his final battle, if not the war itself – he was not able to ward off death but he did meet it with grace and wit. He successfully held onto his consciousness and his characteristic “David” style even as his body closed down around him, greeting everyone who entered the room with wry comments and short ironic hoots of laughter, which despite his voice being weakened by his failing breath, remained familiarly his, right up to the last. As soon as it became clear that it really was the end, those waiting to see him who had yet to say good bye crowded into the room. Another friend called Emma held one of his hands, I held the other. I said, “We’re here with you David, we’re here and we love you.” Outside the window, the late December sun burnt down on College Hill Road, a road he had once straggled up as a young art student, bottle of cheap rosé in hand, on the way to some party or other. Inside the hospice room, with bright orange flowers on the windowsill and paintings he had recently completed propped up around the walls, he breathed his last breath.
The only way I can think of to talk about David at this time is by starting with his own catch phrases – like “Art, Truth and Beauty” for instance. Back in his drinking days, they often formed the basis of a toast, delivered along the lines of “Well then – here’s to art, truth and fuckin’ beauty.” Art, truth and beauty were actually of huge importance to him, but a sentence containing those words tends toward the grandiose, so they were always given an ironic twist. Not only were his paintings and stories anchored in a deep appreciation of art, truth and beauty, they were also the values that informed the choice of artefacts with which he surrounded himself, which in turn left their spoor in the art he produced and the stories that he told – as the old saying goes, “you build your house and your house builds you.”
Here’s a little verbal snapshot of a “David” environment, taken from his story “Ever After”. When moving from a larger to a smaller flat, the main character, Martin Glass, “…kept the icons that reminded him of who he was – the Leaping Leopard of Love; a miniature that belonged to his grandmother, made of butterfly wings; Hockney’s sad portrait of Peter Schlesinger…He resurrected an old brass candelabrum and a reproduction of Adam from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel,” and further down the page, he “…put glassware on the sill to catch the sunlight. A yellow glass banana. A crimson ashtray effervescent with trapped bubbles. A string of crystal pendants from an old chandelier. A creamy green Venetian glass jar bound in gold. He hung up all the mirrors.” And here’s a take on more-or-less the same scene, viewed through the eyes of one of those volatile bad-boys for whom he had such a weakness, “Anyhow, this flat of Martin’s is like some fucked-up fairyland…”
“David,” I would say tautologically into the phone after some bad-boy related incident, “some of these guys are called bad boys because they do rotten things.” He found it hard to reconcile the bad-boy aesthetic, with its rough-hewn poetic sensibilities and unselfconscious style, with the chaos and disappointment that all too often came with it.
Which leads me to “We’re not here for fun” – another catch phrase of his that came poised on the narrow precipice between deadly seriousness and irony. This phrase was often thrown into a high spirited conversation, characterised by excited yells and gales of laughter, but it was never said cheaply. It meant something like “go, on, push things a bit further, and do it as if you mean it.” After David stopped drinking, it no longer accompanied imperatives like “Get that scary-looking green cocktail down you”, but continued to add emphasis to “Go on, kill off that beloved character if it makes the story work,” or “Step out in those extreme heels – go on, you can do it, you know you can!” I like to think that “We’re not here for fun” carried with it something of his youthful roller-skating days, where poise, balance, conviction and the courage to take high leaps turned him into New Zealand’s champion skater at the tender age of fourteen.
Certainly, whoever wrote the blurb on the back of Calling the Fish & Other Stories (University of Otago Press, 2001) drew a connection between David’s skating and his writing. “These stories are written by a champion roller-skater,” it reads, “At the age of fourteen, David Lyndon Brown held three national figure-skating titles and was fifth in the world championships. He brings that sense of grace to his writing, deftly portraying the pain and passion of his characters. And he links and loops people together, at different times and in different places, in a display of great style.” Penelope Beider, in her 2001 review of Calling the Fish in the NZ Herald, said, “He clearly adores the people he has conjured up, and this makes them so real on the page that I am sure I have met some of them. Their sweet vulnerability accurately mirrors the fragility of us all, soldiering on with what life throws our way. He is very funny, too, laugh-out-loud funny, but never cruel.”
I mention these two things together because some of David’s characters would pop up again and again in his stories, at different ages and in different situations. And this did not come from the lazy idea of simply reusing something he already had, it happened because he grew to like his characters, and wanted to show them under a wide variety of lights and perspectives. And he was deft at linking and looping them through a range of ages and situations. This “looping and linking” also played a part in his lifelong fascination with misalliances, which come up often in his stories – attractions between people that are intensified by the fact they will not, and cannot, translate into two people trotting along happily together in double harness; the urbane sophisticate and the semi-criminal wild man for example, who are entranced by each other but are completely unable to become bona fide occupants of each other’s day-today worlds.
As accords with his interest in coloured glass objects catching the light, and a mirror being placed so as to capture the images of passing birds, and so on, David’s interest in a book encompassed it as a complete artefact, and not just a means of launching stories and poems into the public arena. The blue Hawaiian shirt, with the glimpse of neck revealed, on the cover of Calling the Fish is his own design. Its final form was decided upon after intense deliberations over whether it would be better to break the shirt’s pattern with a plain blue pocket containing the names of the book and the author, or to keep the pattern and place the name more conventionally; an internal battle that the plain blue pocket ultimately won. He also designed the covers of the two of his books that were published by Titus; Marked Men (whose cover image is a painting of his) and Skin Hunger.
I don’t think I ever heard the sentence, “I just love Dickens,” emerge from David’s lips, but he knew Dickens inside out – he was like a touchstone, or an old friend whose worth goes well beyond effusive praise; someone he could disagree with, or even disapprove of, on this or that level, but never disregard. David’s relationship with Dickens went right back to his earliest engagement with serious literature, and he never stopped being moved by Dickens’s capacity for holding onto the reins of atmosphere, character-portrayal and story-progression, without short-changing any one of these components for the sake of another. And he loved the complex picture of a time and place that resulted from this – a story-world that as a reader you could sink into and inhabit. His taste in books, however, was not confined to the sort of social realism one associates with Dickens – he loved Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude so much that he read until his paperback copy fell apart, and he just adored the Alexandria Quartet, with its exotic, multicultural cast of characters, where Cavafy, stationed “…at the end of the bar, as always/ the Poet of the City,/ slipshod in scuffed orthopaedics/sips absinthe/and tenderly observes the handsome waiter.”
That quote comes from one of David’s own poems, called “Cavafy’s Shoes” which he dedicated to Bob Orr, a local poet that David held in very high regard, and whose work he followed closely. Olivia McCassey was another Auckland poet whose work would often delight him. A New Zealand fiction writer that captivated him was Shona Koea; he appreciated her love for a well-turned out sentence and a carefully observed artefact, loves which he himself shared. He also maintained an appreciation for the New Zealand greats, Sargeson and Frame, and harboured a permanent soft spot for Ronald Hugh Morrieson, who he thought was probably a bit of a prick as a man, but was nonetheless an honest and very able writer.
David’s judgement of a good story or poem rested on whether it was able to make you “laugh, gasp or sigh” – an exceptional one would go so far as to make you “wet your pants.” These responses, however, could never be evoked by cheap tricks or lazy writing. I would pick his pet hates as being the overuse of adjectives and pointless conceits. As far as adjectives are concerned, he thought that you should only use them on occasions where a scene or event could not be fully conveyed without one. There is no noun, for example, that can by itself convey something like a “rusty pipe” or a “worn-out shoe.” But for the most part he thought that the temptation to use adjectives resulted from failing to find the right noun, and that it was better to beat your head against the wall until you did get the right noun than to prop up an inadequate one with a row of adjectives.
Just as an adjective-studded piece of prose was likely to find itself hurled across the room by page three, so too was a story that relied on fanciful conceits that added nothing of significance to the overall story. No atmospheric change, no sudden light cast on an action or character, no modal shift, sending things hurtling in a hitherto unexpected direction, just a linguistic display of imagination, seemingly there to show that the writer had one. If anything annoyed him more, it was a review that picked out something of that kind as evidence of good writing.
As is reasonably common with New Zealand writers, David gained more respect and honours from his writing than he did wealth or fame, but the respect and honours he attracted were very real. As well as his three officially published books and numerous awards and prizes, he has written for RNZ, Art New Zealand and various other publications, and his writing has consistently been well-received. One highlight of his literary life was his receipt of the Buddle Findlay Fellowship at the University of Auckland in 2012. For five months he lived in the Sargeson Centre flat in Albert Park, with a stipend that enabled him to concentrate solely on his writing.
This was a beautiful moment in David’s life. The flat itself is simple – pleasant, but without extravagance or distraction, set in lovely surroundings. Each day David left the windows on either side open, and each day the same sparrow flew through them, looking for food. Each day he left it something to eat, and even gave it a name – Mr Jeffreys”- and a role in a story, “Mr Jeffreys and Me: 150 Days in the Park.”
Most of the stories he wrote there are still to be published. Around that time he was working as an alcohol and drug counsellor, and running a course of which he was very proud, entitled “Straight Up,” in which creative writing was used as an instrument of recovery from addiction. The idea behind it was that by committing their thoughts, feelings and experiences to paper, people could potentially come to know themselves better, which would in turn allow them to take the business of addressing their addictions into their own hands, rather than passively follow instructions from others. Because this work ended up taking much of his time, he did not pursue the publication of his Sargeson flat stories with his usual vigour. He did, however, complete 11 stories during his time there, and he left a boxed set of his own self-published versions of them at the flat. Albert Park and its surrounds are full of whispers and glimpses, and the stories he wrote there mostly pursue the subject of alienation – the foreigner, the homeless couple, the park’s escapees from the pressures of their lives, and its sometimes unnerving night-time wanderers.
There was a period of time where David’s and my ‘comfort viewing’ included a short video of Jozef Sabovčik ice-skating to Bruce Springsteen’s “Trapped.” The video shows an idealised bad-boy, embodying art, truth and beauty with the physical and artistic courage that says we are not here for fun. Watching Sabovčik alone on my laptop has evoked my biggest flood of tears since David’s death – it is just not the same without David sitting next to me, gasping at Sabovčik’s huge leaps, dramatic stops and smouldering facial expressions. The Sabovčik video takes me to the catch-phrases of down-home intimacy, “saving it for best” and “it’s only us.”
“Saving it for best” was a little salute to our old-fashioned working class backgrounds, in which special things had to be kept special and not disrespectfully gobbled up or sullied with over-familiarity. A bottle of cold-pressed, high quality olive oil or a silk designer shirt, bought for a song in New Lynn, might have been judged too good for everyday use and so “saved for best”. Sometimes, if we thought we had been watching Sabovčik too often, he too would be saved for best for a while, so that our wonder at this thrilling performance would not become dulled. “It’s only us”, or “never mind, it’s only us,” was the catch phrase for times when a broken tooth or heart, or a blotchy red facial rash or some such thing prevented one of us from wanting to be seen in public. Then it was “only us” eating soup in front of the telly, watching Alan Bennett perhaps, or the Sabovčik video if a suitable time had elapsed for him to be released from the “saved for best” list.
It would be a mistake to talk about David without touching briefly on the catch phrase that is perhaps most associated with him by his friends, “But what shall I wear?” It is enough to say that I never came anywhere near matching him in matters of style and taste, and that this made choosing the clothes for his funeral a fraught business. I did not make the choice alone, and a group of us ended up finally going with a very pale lavender cotton shirt. He had once been photographed in it, he had worn it at Christmas, and so we considered that it was probably OK with him. Still, it felt like a trespass, making a decision on something as important to him as what he was to wear, without being able to consult him.
Finally, there is the catch phrase of his last years, “the things I cannot change.” One month before he died David celebrated 10 years of sobriety, and “the things I cannot change” is a line from the Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics’ Anonymous: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change/The courage to change the things I can/And the wisdom to know the difference.” In the final year of his life David wrote a play entitled The Things I Cannot Change, derived from the AA experience, with a cast of just two embodied characters. In keeping with David’s penchant for “links and loops” this play is more-or-less a follow up of a play he and I wrote together about ten years ago, entitled The Wild Blue Yonder, which was produced last year for Hero Week by Andrea Kelland at the Garnet Station Tiny Theatre.
In The Things I cannot Change, we meet the only two characters to bodily appear sitting on a step in the evening, with the lit-up windows of a church hall in the background, and the sound of an unseen chorus inside reciting the Serenity Prayer. One of the two men is a mature version of the classic bad-boy; a recovering alcoholic with a shady past, the other is loosely based on David himself. I appear in the play at a later point as a voice at the other end of a telephone. Since the afternoon of the 30th of December, 2015, the telephone calls have stopped, and David’s absence is now one of the things I cannot change – pretending he is on a long and delightful holiday in Pondicherry is, unfortunately, not sustainable.