Martin Edmond is a New Zealand author, poet and playwright based in Sydney. His formidable list of publications includes Luca Antara: Passages in Search of Australia (Addenda, 2006), described by Nobel prize winner J M Coetzee as 'a book lover's book, a graceful and mesmerising blend of history, autobiography, travel, and romance, and Dark Night: Walking With McCahon, published by Auckland University Press in 2011 and shortlisted for the Douglas Stewart Prize for non-fiction in the 2013 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
His essay, Winged Sandals, on the art and history of taxi driving (which he does to keep himself in writing time) will be published here very soon.
Oh, I probably should add that the links in Martin's answers below have been added by RMB without consulting him.
Martin, would you say a little about writing Winged Sandals — the time, place, and any anecdotes associated with the process?
I began writing this a while ago but I’m not exactly sure when. I recall wanting to get clear in my mind certain aspects of the job and my changing attitudes to it over time. There was also an impulse to find out more about the history of the business, both here in New South Wales and in the wider world. It proved quite difficult to research, it has always been an obscure pursuit; much of what survives is anecdotal.
I was also thinking about the way taxi driving has been romanticised, how cabbies appear as stock characters in films, novels and so forth. There was a book published around that time which featured a Sydney cabbie as the hero and, while he was a convincing character, the description of his daily routine was absurd. So there was also a desire to testify, in a small way, to the reality of driving for a living.
Beyond that is the plain fact that it was from the beginning a job I wrote about; in the essay I mention the book of rides I assembled in the early 1980s which was never published and is now lost. That habit of writing up nights in the life revived when I began the weblog dérives which, though I’m no longer adding to it, is still out there on the web.
Every cab driver feels the urge to debrief, maybe because weird things happen all the time and usually you’re the only witness.
I wrote the essay in my flat in Summer Hill, where I still live, at the desk I’m sitting at now; which was sold to me by the man whose father was a Green Cab driver, the one who said that driving ruined his life.
Peter, the son, was a local secondhand dealer for a few years, he was always coming up with obscure pieces of art that he thought might be worth something and I would often go into his shop and tell him what I thought of his latest acquisition. He was proud to have sold a desk to a real writer and I’ve always found it a happy place to work.
Where or on whose work are you drawing for encouragement or inspiration?
Many years ago, in Wellington, I drove municipal buses for a living and, in one of the issues of Spleen magazine, published a series of interviews with three other bus drivers; this was at a time when the Tramways Union was still an active force in the Capital and there would be hilarious, mock-furious, vociferous stop-work meetings in the Trades Hall.
At the time I encountered the Chicago writer Louis ‘Studs’ Terkel and took inspiration from his endeavours to document the lives of ordinary working folk. He was an oral historian and a radio broadcaster and his 1974 book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do is a standout.
Primo Levi has also written in an illuminating way about the work that people do; he was an industrial chemist by profession, working mostly with the chemistry of paint, and there’s a book called ThePeriodic Table which explores his occupation. And another, of essays, which I think were originally published in newspapers, called Other People’s Trades.
I wasn’t necessarily thinking about Studs Terkel or Primo Levi when I wrote this but that urge towards the documentary has always been in my work. Along with a sense that it is always possible to discover the miraculous within the ordinary.
What are your current challenges?
Earning a living remains a challenge for me. I own nothing more valuable than a fifteen-year-old Toyota and have always lived a day to day, hand to mouth existence. I don’t complain, there are advantages to living that way; a certain edge or alertness is one and a (relative) freedom another. I’m not tied to anything inanimate (apart from my books) and my real obligations, as they should be, are towards the people in my life. And to whatever audience I can gather for my writing.
The challenge then becomes balancing the requirements that work imposes with the need to continue writing. I become restless and unhappy when I’m prevented from writing for any length of time, it is an occupation that is sustaining in a way that is mysterious—some sort of feedback loop between mind and page, or mind and screen, that seems somehow exponential. I want to sustain that as long as I have the faculties to do so.
I like swimming. It’s my version of a meditation. I have these new, red and black, very swish Italian goggles that make me feel in the water like an Olympian. I like spending time with my sons, who are both teenagers now and a source of perplexity and delight in about equal measure. I’ve been teaching a course this year in what the powers that be are pleased to call Creative Non-fiction and have found it stimulating. I’m surprised at how much I know about the writing process and also at how much of it can be communicated to those who want to learn. I’m loving reading All the Days and Nights, the collected short fiction of William Maxwell.
In a couple of weeks I’m going to Wagga Wagga for a few days and I’m looking forward to that. Australia is inexhaustible, by any measure it is a strange place with a peculiar, mostly unsung history; one of my pleasures is travelling to out of the way places and seeing what happens. I usually write up these trips, sometimes just by rehearsing the names on old maps. Wagga is a word that turns up in one of the lists of arcana that French poet Arthur Rimbaud used to compile. I don’t expect to find him there by I might come across an Illumination.
What's up ahead for your work in 2013-14?
I’m planning a book about the convict artist Joseph Lycett, who was active in Australia during the later years of the Governorship of Lachlan Macquarie; that is, between 1814 and 1821. Two hundred years ago now. This is a fascinating period, during which a template for the kind of society we still could become was laid down. And then blasted by the rancour and greed of the elites and those who serve them.
Lycett is an enigmatic figure; a considerable artist who was also a forger (of banknotes); a man who lived so secretively that most of what is known about him comes from court records; a silent witness whose album of water colours of Aboriginal life is considered, at the library in Canberra where it’s held, to be as significant and as valuable as the originals they have of Cook’s Journals. It’s a going to be difficult to write about someone so obscure, but I like to venture into the unknown.
After that, I want to research and write a book about four New Zealanders, expatriates, scholars, who had in their careers a significant impact on European thought in the twentieth century. It’ll be a chronological account of their four overlapping lives, covering a hundred years or so. These are fellows born in places like Eltham, Taranaki and Carterton in the Wairarapa who had a decisive influence upon the resolution of some the great issues of their time. It’s a big project that will require some travel, so I hope I can find the support somewhere to enable me to do that.
Thanks, Martin. Here's to courage and surefootedness for the year ahead, then.