Martin Edmond

Mansions, and Other Places


Ulimaroa is another mansion in Melbourne with an Austronesian name. The house at 630 St Kilda Road is a nineteenth century Italianate manor built in 1889-90 by Reverend Edwin Watkins along that tree-lined boulevard of luxurious private residences. It is now the headquarters of the Australia and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists and the location of the Geoffrey Kaye Museum of Anaesthetic History, founded in 1935. Watkins was the son of a Methodist missionary who had been in Tonga; he was educated in the South Island of New Zealand and, in Melbourne, became known as a gentleman scholar of Australiana and Pacific arcana. He never lived in Ulimaroa but leased it to his friend John Traill, who was an original partner and later chairman of the board of the shipping company Huddart Parker, out of Adelaide, whose steamers ran between all the main Australian and New Zealand ports at the turn of the century and for a while afterwards too. Traill bought Ulimaroa outright in 1899 and the family lived there until 1946. He named one of the Huddart Parker line after her: the SS Ulimaroa was requisitioned by the New Zealand government as a troop ship during the war and scrapped in Osaka in 1934. There are also numerous references in newspapers of the first half of the twentieth century to race horses called Ulimaroa; there must have been a gambling fraternity. Finally there’s a sign out on the Darling Downs, off the Warrago Highway in Queensland, a remnant of a former whistlestop depot called Ulimaroa where farmers used to drop off their wheat and pick up their supplies; the nearest town now, twenty-seven kilometres away, is called Miles. For anyone who knows Austronesian languages the word Ulimaroa looks odd: you don’t find both an ‘r’ and an ‘l’ in Polynesian words; it should be either Urimaroa or Ulimaloa. The first sounds Māori and the second Samoan; but if you took out the two consonants and replaced each of them with a stop you’d have Hawaiian. Ulimaroa, or a word like it, was recorded twice during Cook’s first visit to New Zealand, at Doubtless Bay in the far north of the North Island and in Queen Charlotte’s Sound at the top of the South Island. Once by Cook and once by Banks. Both times they were endeavouring to find out if Māori knew of any other lands or peoples. Both times they were using Tupaia, the Tahitian tohunga, as their interpreter. On his famous map there are two islands whose names could be written Ulimaroa, both far away in Eastern Polynesia. At Queen Charlotte’s Sound, Cook and Banks were also trying to find out if there was any historical memory there of the visit of Abel Tasman in 1642. The land of Ulimaroa, they were told in both places, was a week away to the north west or the north north west; the people there kept pigs. Four of them had visited in a canoe once and when they came ashore they were killed. Tasman had four men taken from a ship’s cockboat and killed; but the detail about the pigs suggests a voyage to Ulimaroa, not from it. It might have remained just another obscure word in Hawkesworth’s official account of Cook’s first voyage if it had not been picked up there by Swedish geographer and cartographer Daniel Djurberg. From 1776 onwards, on all of his maps, Djurberg called Australia Ulimaroa. The misnomer spread through scholarly circles in Scandinavia, Germany and Central Europe and persisted there long enough to reach Edwin Watkins’ ears. Djurberg’s dubious etymology suggested Ulimaroa meant ‘long red land’ in the same way that Aotearoa is supposed to mean ‘long white cloud’. It is much more likely that the initial ‘U’ in Ulimaroa was a miss-hearing of the Māori article ‘O’, indicating a destination; and the word was in fact Rimaroa; which would mean something like ‘long hand’ or ‘long arm’. On the basis of this etymology, La Grande Terre, the big island in New Caledonia, has been suggested as the place. It is in the right direction; which Australia, lying due west of Aotearoa, is not. However when Europeans first arrived in New Caledonia there were no pigs; though the word was known. As it was at Doubtless Bay. It turns out that on some Pacific Islands, for instance Tikopia, the archaeological record shows that pigs were kept for a while and then eradicated―because of the damage they did to the cultivations. People traded meat for vegetables and fish. This was perhaps the case on Kanaky too. Maybe the voyages between Aotearoa and Rimaroa took place before the Rimaroans stopped keeping pigs. Maybe the Aotearoans never had them; though they took enthusiastically to puaka after Cook introduced them; pigs there are still sometimes called Captain Cookers. It is strange how a word of such vague antecedents, spoken in passing at Doubtless Bay in 1769, and again at Queen Charlotte’s Sound, became the name of a country, a house, a ship, a railway siding and an indeterminate number of racehorses; and a cause for speculation about the provenance of pigs on islands; stranger still to think that no-one now knows where Ulimaroa was, if it ever was, nor where it may yet be.


Et quid amabo nisi quod aenigma est?

Another of Melbourne’s mansions is evoked, obliquely, in the opening sentences of Giorgio de Chirico’s 1929 novel Hebdomeros: . . . And then began the visit to that strange building located in an austerely respectable but by no means dismal street. Seen from outside, the building looked like a German consulate in Melbourne. Large shops took up the whole ground floor. Though it was neither a Sunday nor a holiday the shops were closed at the time, which gave this portion of the street a weary, melancholy air, that particular dreary atmosphere one associates with Anglo-Saxon towns on Sundays. A faint smell of docks hung on the air . . . Needless to say, de Chirico had never been to Melbourne; but he might have seen a photo of a building there, a grey sheer-sided monolith, perhaps, with lighted boutiques, deco reliefs and an eagle over its entrance door, which once stood on Collins Street. Or something else entirely. Imants Tillers identified the connection thus: ‘Melbourne entered de Chirico’s imagination when he received a postcard of the Italianate Treasury Building in Melbourne (designed by J.J. Clark to house the bounty flowing from the Victorian goldfields) from his expatriate Roman friend Gino Nibbi." In the book Hebdomeros asks his two companions what they think of his description of the building; they say it is ‘odd’ but that is all. I haven’t seen the French but the phrasing of the English is interesting: ‘like a German consulate’; without actually being one. Nevertheless it was a portal into an alternative reality and once Hebdomeros and his friends had gone through it, they (and you) are in place of unfolding strangenesses which is not just unknown but unknowable―the timespace of dreams where you glimpse many wonders including, for example, Gerald Murnane’s plains and Dorrit Black’s hills. John Ashbery, who published translations of parts of Hebdomeros and wrote a brief introduction to the first complete English language version, remarked: ‘Everything about Hebdomeros is mysterious. De Chirico wrote it a decade after his genius as a painter had mysteriously evaporated. He wrote it in French, a language not his own, and he invented for the occasion a new style and a new kind of novel.’ That first English translation, which appeared in an edition of 500 copies from Four Seasons Book Society, New York, in 1966, was unsigned and to this day both publisher and translator remain unknown. Ashbery, who reviewed the book, said no such publishing house existed at 550 Fifth Avenue, the address Four Seasons used, at that time; also that the book carried a printer’s mark from Belgrade. ‘The introduction is by James A. Hodkinson, a name unknown to me and not to be found in the pages of the Cumulative Book Index and the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, though he is obviously no novice and his text is full of valuable insights and little known scholarly information.’ He also calls the unknown translator’s translation ‘excellent’. Of course he may have done it himself. In 2014 in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue of a show called Dreamings: Aboriginal Australian Art Meets de Chirico at the Museo Carlo Bisotti in Rome art historian Ian McLean suggests that the timespace Hebdomeros and his companions enter through the door of the building like a German consulate in Melbourne has affinities with the Everywhen of the Aborigine. ‘From the first pages de Chirico collapses all worlds into a fluid timeless space that mocks modernity’s linear historicism and allows Hebdomeros to slip effortlessly into ancestral events as they existed in a never-ending present.’ He points out a path whereby de Chirico might have encountered Aboriginal metaphysics. Arrernte poetry was chanted at Cabaret Voltaire by Tristan Tzara in 1916; scholars Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud read the anthropological despatches of Spencer and Gillen from the field in Central Australia. Even the word is strange: a yoking together of ‘hebdom’ and ‘eros’, where one refers to the number seven and thus to events which might repeat weekly; while the other is the Greek god of love. Does that mean the eponymous hero might, in another life, have been an hebdomadary? In a letter to poet Guillame Apollinaire in 1916 de Chirico wrote: ‘It has been almost two years since I have seen you. The Ephesian teaches us that time does not exist, and that on the great curve of eternity the past is the same as the future. This might be what the Romans meant with their image of Janus, the god with two faces; and every night in dream, in the deepest hours of rest, the past and future appear to us as equal, memory blends with prophesy in a mysterious union.’ In another place he advises us to look upon everything in the world as an enigma and to live as if in an immense museum of strange things.

The Return of the Prodigal

When I moved into the house at 9 Thomas Street, Golden Grove I found rolled up on a shelf at the top of the cupboard under the stairs a reproduction, on stiff, high quality paper, much creased, of a pencil drawing by Giorgio de Chirico called The Return of the Prodigal (1917). It was one of a number of intricate drawings de Chirico did at this time, including, for example, Solitude and The Mathematicians. A painting from 1922 reiterates most of the main features of the 1917 drawing although the gibbet I recall from it is absent. Another painting of the same subject was made in 1924 and another in 1929, each a view of the two figures in more or less the same pose. De Chirico returned again and again to certain images and the prodigal son was one of them; he must have had father issues. How did the drawing come to be in the cupboard? The previous tenants were a couple of painter friends but it wasn't theirs; I asked them. The landlord and lady were an art critic and a painter respectively, George Berger from Vienna and Mimi Jaksic-Berger, a Serbian. George, who was Jewish, had come to Australia in the 1930s and for a time taught adult education classes alongside the redoubtable Bernard Smith. He also invented the movement, Abstract Impressionism, of which Mimi was the sole practitioner and only known exemplar; as together they struggled to advance the cause of her art in the world, which was not my world or even, realistically, theirs. They lived off rents, which in my case and probably in others, if there were others, were always being raised: ‘to compensate for the loss in the purchasing power of the Australian dollar,’ as George used to say. Mimi's hectic acrylic washes, now generally gathered under the title ‘lyrical abstraction’, are about as far away as you can get from de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings, which are cool and mysterious, both in their imagery and in the invented space that imagery inhabits. In those days the streets of Golden Grove themselves sometimes resembled a scene from a de Chirico painting. The evening skies were green, there was the distant sound of trains passing through Redfern Station, the nearer roar of traffic on Cleveland Street, people frozen in enigmatic attitudes (usually outside pubs) at end of day, most of all the facades and silhouettes of buildings in the warehouse district that seemed to exist, incontrovertibly but for no known purpose, in a darkness all their own beneath the radiance of that sky. I found other things in that house. A commemorative badge, a relief of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, opened in 1932, mislaid at the back of another cupboard in the upstairs bedroom; a small metal anchor made to be hung on a chain around the neck, an antique symbol (it's on the coat of arms) of Sydney Town. And, in the garden, which grew over a thick midden of black sand from an ancient swamp, a rusty old fob watch. At first I thought The Return of the Prodigal must have been about the Great War and its aftermath, a flesh and blood father meeting his son returning from the Front as the mechanical or schematic man of the future. This can't be sustained from an examination of any of the paintings de Chirico did after the drawing however. In all these works the suited man, if indeed he is the father and not the son, looks sometimes like a statue made of marbled cloud, not flesh, and sometimes like a wraith; the mechanical son sometimes as extravagant as an Elizabethan gentleman wearing an elaborate ruff, sometimes a mere dummy; while what was certainly an embrace, howsoever equivocal, in the drawing, in the paintings looks more like two men bowing to one another so that, absurdly, their foreheads touch. I see the horsed figure in the background as a conquistador and the low, flat building behind that as some adobe compound from out of the new or old Mexico of Billy the Kid. But where is the gibbet? While I’m certain it was in the drawing, it doesn’t appear in any of the painted versions; unless it was not a gibbet at all, but a tower, or even a set of black sails, like those which Theseus neglected to take down from his ships when he was sailing back from Crete, occasioning the death by suicide of his father. De Chirico often painted statues of Ariadne, whom Theseus left behind on Naxos. Despite their wealth of references there is no warrant for the definitive interpretation of any of de Chirico's works; they exist, in their infinite and quite possibly redundant suggestibility, to confound interpretation. Robert Hughes said: ‘He could condense voluminous feeling through metaphor and association. One can try to dissect these magical nodes of experience, yet not find what makes them cohere.’ What shall I love if not the enigma? Equally enigmatic, to me at least, is my decision, when I moved out of that house, not to take the drawing with me but to leave it there rolled up, creased and dirty, in the same place in the same cupboard where I found it two years before.

Martin Edmond: Aotearoan living dis/contentedly in the People’s Republic of Marrickville.
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