Saturday, April 02, 2005

now be clay in the ground

My first fulltime job, more than four decades ago, was as a member of the consular staff of the Embassy of Japan in New Zealand. The Japanese Foreign Ministry had a policy of employing two local staff for every diplomat, in order to draw on local knowledge and also provide something of a buffer. Anti-Japanese sentiment was nowhere near as strong as it was in Australia, but memories of the Second World War were not too distant.

I will never forget my interview. It was in November, the end of spring, almost summer, but the day was cold & wet. Wellington is in the path of the winds that come up from Antartica, such unseasonal days are quite common, & the Norfolk pines around Oriental Bay where the Embassy was situated bent & complained, threatening to blow away. I was wearing an overcoat, suit, jersey. Outside I was barely warm. Inside, in the central heating, even without the overcoat, I sweltered & sweated.

There were three people interviewing me. The Counsellor with not much English, an Assistant Attaché who said almost nothing, & a New Zealander who, I discovered later, was an ex-Army Colonel whose final military job had been interviewing officer candidates. (& who, a career military man, started to become disenchanted by war during the Korean War & now, ten years later, was a pacifist who, a few years on, when conscription by ballot was introduced for Vietnam, assured me that the Embassy would raise an official protest should my birthday be drawn.)

I sat across the desk from the Counsellor. The Colonel on my right a metre or so back from the side of the desk, the Attaché also to my right but behind me. I felt like a windscreen wiper answering their questions. The Colonel's interviewing technique was to ask non-sequential questions. We talked about sport, & then, from out of left field, I was asked what religion I was. Although by now I had moved away from the beliefs of my parents, they were still close enough, & I was intent on coming across as a proper young man, so I answered that I was Church of England. "Practising or non-practising?" "Non-practising." At which point the Counsellor let out a great guffaw, beat his fists on the desk & chortled "Me Buddhist. But me non-practising Buddhist. Have paid for my shrine for when I die, but I never go to the temple." It was at that point that I knew I had the job.

Officially my work mainly entailed ensuring that visa documentation was in order. Fairly straightforward though there were moments. I remember a wrestler, Bulgarian-born but now stateless with identity papers rather than a passport, the hairiest man I have ever seen, who, because he was carrying out his profession in Japan needed a special visa & with whom, through his bad English, my bad German & a surfeit of gestures, we managed to get all the appropriate paperwork together. & the one truly "Ugly American" I have ever come across, who insisted on calling me "Boy" until I lost my cool & told him to "Sit fucking down & stop calling me Boy or you'll be blacklisted from ever going to Japan."

But mainly what I got out of my time at the Embassy was a preparedness to be surprised by nothing, to think on my feet, to handle whatever was put before you. You dealt with people of many nationalities, many stations in life. The Japanese Prime Minister paid a visit to New Zealand; in a hierarchal society the place went crazy for a month before & for the duration of his visit. Painters, musicians, practioners of religion, business people, the flow going both ways.

& then there were the benefits, some official, some not so. The Embassy had a collection of 16mm films, a lot of tourist stuff but mixed in amongst them were films on woodblock prints – ukiyo-e, ikebana, the tea ceremony, Zen monastries, stone gardens, castles, ryokan. I watched them & wrote articles for the monthly Embassy newsletter. I acquired prints of Utamaro & Hiroshige, calendars from a shipyard whose owner had the greatest collection in Japan of sumi-e, black ink drawings, by Sengai. I discovered the novels of Junichiro Tanizaki & Yukio Mishima. The Embassy brought out new Japanese feature films each year, but never Kurosawa because he was "too Western".

& then the unofficial benefits. Duty-free cigarettes, crates of Kirin & Sapporo beer which were shipped out from Japan every three months & which nobdy but myself drank. &, most importantly of all, the books.

My first venture was through official channels. Courtesy of the diplomatic bag I got pirated editions, printed in Taiwan, of Henry Miller's great early trilogy – the two Tropics & Black Spring. & then, because the Embassy could access foreign currency easily & because diplomatic mail was never opened, I acquired a significant part of the Olympia Press catalogue, all of which was banned in those days of censorship in nearly all English-speaking countries. I brought in Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers & The Thief's Journal, Burroughs' Naked Lunch & The Soft Machine, Durrell's Black Book, Lolita by Nabokov, Miller's Sexus & Nexus - I already had Plexus, bought from the greatest second-hand bookstore I've ever come across, but that's another story -Trocchi's Cain's Book, Candy & many others. Because of the foreign currency I could take out a subscription to Evergreen Review & buy books from most of the small poetry presses in the U.S. My cup ranneth over.

I left after three years, to move north to Auckland. Things had changed somewhat. The Ambassador when I joined was on his last posting, & took things reasonably easily, delegating a lot. He was replaced by a career diplomat, young enough to have the major posts of Washington or London or Paris in his sights. We agreed to disagree, though a year or so later we met again in Auckland & embraced warmly, as friends, although such shows of emotion are rare amongst the public Japanese persona.

All this brought back to me through re-reading a book of poems written in Japan by an American, in which is a poem about an English potter who was killed in a motorcycle crash in Sydney. Whose visit in company with the great Japanese potter Shoji Hamada I had helped prepare for. Who came close to New Zealand, but never arrived.

The potter, John Chappell. The book, The Back Country. The poet, Gary Snyder. The poem, For John Chappell.
"Over the Arafura Sea, the China Sea,
      Coral Sea, Pacific
chains of volcanoes in the dark—
you in Sydney where it's summer;
I imagine that last ride outward
late at night………"

1 comment:

Ivy said...

What a lovely reminiscence, mark. Thanks for sharing this.