Monday, June 27, 2011

Mitchell steals away

David Mitchell, the poet, died earlier this week after a long illness.

Friends of his, Nigel Roberts and Murray Edmond, published an anthology of his poems, Steal Away Boy, last year. The book had a long biographical introduction. I appear briefly in those pages as a sort of comedy extra ("poor old Tosso", the perceptions of one Paul Gray, an unreliable witness I say). You will see a little of the film I shot of him back in 1980 or so down the page a way here.

Dave was foremost a charming man. He was also an exceedingly irresponsible one, a nasty one, a greatly talented and enormously annoying one. I spent far too much time and money with and for him but I was perhaps the least of the many victims of his charms, wiles and – later – his insanity.

I met him first in about 1964 when he returned to Wellington from Europe with his beautiful new-won and newly pregnant wife Elsebeth. I bumped into him again the following year in Kings Cross, Sydney, on my first day there, and I was around King Cross at the time his marriage began its inevitable collapse. I saw the bad side of him then. I was however persistently, habitually I suppose, nonjudgemental, so I would hardly spurn him in the pub or at parties. It wasn't just me. His charm and wit won most people.

In Auckland in the early 80s Dave prevailed upon me to film some of the poetry readings at the Globe. I called in numerous favours for this effort. Professional filmstock and equipment were both expensive, but somehow I managed. This story is told (with some embroidery) in the book.

Later, in the mid '80s Dave was a regular caller at my place in Freemans Bay, about a mile from downtown Auckland. My then girlfriend (partner? flatmate?) had poetic pretensions and enjoyed the famous one's presence at first but soon tired of his impositions. He was clearly then developing some form of madness and losing his grip, yet he still managed to get work as a relieving primary school teacher. I am sure he was a superb one for the pupils, if not in the staff room.

My girlfriend, by then ex, had departed on her second OE by the time, one New Year's Eve, that I bumped into Mitchell again at the Civic Tavern in Auckland. He had just that day arrived back from Sydney where he had been visiting his daughter Sara, and told me he had nowhere to sleep that night. I invited him back to my place and he stayed the night on the couch. He stayed the following night as well.

Three months later he was still there. I had asked him repeatedly to leave but I he always found a way to scrape back into the house and my good graces. Pathetic gifts of corncobs and cabbages were meant to reciprocate for the meals I cooked. My new flatmate then was often away for his work and Dave would ask for the use of his bed, a favour increasingly denied, otherwise it was the sofa. Getting rid of him in the end took almost physical eviction.

A year or so later, I was living in another place in Freemans Bay and Dave once again became a frequent visitor. By then I had learnt to deny his entreaties for accommodation but he would often call for a coffee. His eccentricity now had developed into a quite florid form of paranoia.

He would be lucid and rather calculating most of the time. He would enjoy a coffee and a word-playful conversation then suddenly rush for the door at the sound, or the suspected sound, of a passing car. "They" were on his tail. ("They," he eventually revealed, were Pacific Islanders, typically ardent churchgoers. He was known to confront the odd astonished Islander sometimes in the street.) At other times he would wonder whether excessive coffee was making him "nervous" and would attempt to give it up. That didn't work.

I tried to get him medical treatment several times but he was self-aware enough to be able to "play sane" when necessary. He was costing me time, patience and money, and I wondered at my own tolerance.
I began avoiding him consistently at about that time. He had become a street wanderer, one of those prodigious walkers, and I became a skilled street-crosser, keen student of window displays and adept ducker-into-doorways. He approached me unavoidably a couple of times in cafes and I noticed that his voice was becoming husky and strained, the result of the smoke I assumed. Eventually I moved away from central Auckland and later away from Auckland altogether.

In about 2004 a friend discovered Mitchell in a resthome in Wellington. He had developed what I was told was Parkinson's disease. I went to see him and almost recoiled at the hollowed out, toothless figure he had become, but he greeted me warmly and took me to his room. I saw that he was making notes for or about poems and reading avidly. His voice had largely gone but I gained the impression that his sanity had to a large extent been restored. No doubt the medical attention he could no longer avoid had yielded regular doses of lithium.

Soon after that he stole away from that miserable place to, I hope, a slightly less miserable one in Sydney, care of the ever-tolerant, loving and dutiful Sara.

I saw him once again via Skype at the launch of the anthology, Steal Away Boy, in Auckland in 2010, a great gathering of the old – now more or less elderly – Auckland push.

Dave Mitchell could only smile from the screen and weakly wave as we drowned our sorrow at his faltering gaze.

1 comment:

gomofly said...

Mitchell's passing has led me to your blog. Most enjoyable reading, thank you. I see that you have been on blogspot since 2007, but find only four posts, all in 2011. Were you sleeping between 2007 and June 12 this year, or did I somehow fail to find the archive button?

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