No Headline Required
by PHILIP WHITE
DATELINE: Mid-to-late eighties. Summer. Head for The Exeter. Damn! There’s a bloke on my barstool in the corner, where I like to sit with my back to the wall so I can watch the door. He looks sickly, effete, so I stay away and drink further down the bar, with Lawrence. The next day, the Englishman’s there again. This is becoming a bad habit. I sidle closer and make conversation. He’s a dismissive Pom who seems to think we’re half-witted alien peasants, but he understands architecture: he’s fascinated by the pub’s chamfered corner with the door in it - the door I like to look through from my perch in the corner - and he likes his Cooper’s Ale by the slow pint. He has the distant smell of the traveler: the man adrift without a bed; almost without interest. He reminds me of the schoolteacher in Wake In Fright. Day three, I go earlier, to beat him to my spot. When he arrives he seems irritated to be dislodged. I explain my historical attachment, and why I like to keep an eye on the door; he seems to accept my theory, but would prefer to have the corner to himself as he’s not too well and would prefer to sit. We talk about the bush he has just traversed and how big and ancient and overwhelming it is, and the sorts of dried-out people who inhabit it. He mentions Africa with the sort of disdainful familiarity some folks show their dirty kitchen. He never returns.
POST SCRIPT: It was at least a year later when my copy of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines arrived. It had been much discussed: the great Brit travel writer focusing his sentimental gaze on Australia’s relationship with its original peoples. I had devoured his In Patagonia, The Viceroy of Ouidah, and On The Black Hill, but they’d been in paperback. This time, I’d gone the whole posterity hog and paid full tote for the hardcover. It had the author’s photograph on the back. I’d never seen a photograph of him before. It was Bruce, the Pom in the pub. We had never discussed our professions. He died in 1989.
DATELINE: The Exeter, early ’nineties. “Hey Philip,” a mate says. “There’s an interesting bloke in the saloon. Big hat. Cowboy. Wonder who he is.” Eternally curious about potential drinking compadres, I lurch through for a look. He’s denim from arsehole to breakfast, and sure, the hat’s big. He’s got his worn-out ostrich skin cowboy boots up on a chair, and he’s stretched out, reclining, back to the wall, drinking a short whiskey on ice. He’s legit. I am too close not to offer a howdy. “Howdy mate,” I say, awkwardly. “Where you from?” “I live in a trailer in Willie Nelson’s backyard,” he drawls in a smoky baritone. “Where you from?” When I shake hands, I realise there’s not much of his right one left: it seems all little finger and thumb. He holds it up. “Never try to stop a .44,” he says with a laugh. “I’m Billy Joe Shaver.”
POST SCRIPT: I couldn’t believe my luck. This was the dude who’d written songs, not just for Willie, but for Elvis and Kristofferson and Waylon and the lads.
They revered him.
His album Old Five And Dimers Like Me was an outlaw classic; among his more memorable couplets is the inimitable "The Devil made me do it the first time, second time I done it on my own".
We drank awhile and talked of my heroes and his, and later clomped around to the Queen’s Head where he held a plectrum with that claw-like thumb and finger and played his hits to about forty of us, mainly women. He seemed to lose interest in singing after a while, and took most of them back to his hotel.
Somehow, Billy Joe’s still alive. Having repeatedly married and divorced his wife, Brenda, she eventually died of cancer; their beloved son, his regular guitarist, Eddy, died of a heroin overdose. Billy Joe survived a heart attack on stage in Texas and continued to record. Bob Dylan boasts of to listening to him in I Feel A Change Comin On. He appeared in Robert Duvall’s brilliant The Apostle, amongst other movies, and was most recently in the spotlight a couple of years back when he was acquitted of shooting Billy Bryant Coker in the face in Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon. Billy Joe’s defense was self-defense: he said Billy Bryant pulled a knife on him. Dale Watson famously recorded Where Do You Want It? to immortalize the event. The story about Billy Joe having his hand shot off was bullshit: he’d lost it in a sawmill accident.
DATELINE: Kinselas, Sydney, mid-’eighties. I’m drinking cognac in the cocktail bar with Adam Wynn: we got a late start: it’s 2AM. A short Indian fellow approaches. He’s in dark blue blue drill shirt and pants, like an electrician wears - just like Allan Ginsberg wore continuously through his stay in the early ’70’s - and he’s carrying an airline bag stuffed with newspapers. “Gentlemen,” he says in a perfect Trinidad-Indian-Oxford-English, “I admire your attitude to cognac. May I buy you a drink?” We hit it off like a house on fire. The guy’s so funny, slapping high fives and hollerin’ “Get down” in faux hillbilly. We drink and laugh; laugh and drink until they gently usher us out into the skinny morning light of Taylor Square. As we bid our farewells I tell Adam “I’ll see you back at the winery on Wednesday,” referring to his new venture a thousand kays away, on the High Eden Ridge at Mountadam. Our Indian mate suddenly shows a new interest. “Oh,” he says, “do you gentlemen have contacts in the wine industry? I plan to visit the South Australian wineries in a few months, when I have finished my work in the Northern Territory.” I mischievously suggest that between Mr Wynn and myself we could arrange the odd good day at a winery sort of thing, and enquire as to the work in the Territory. “I am writing a book about Australia,” he says, “about the relationship here between black and white.” Which triggers a raggedly unison “Well who the hell are you?” He puts forth his hand. “I am Shiva Naipal.”
POST SCRIPT: Shiva, the younger brother of V. S. Naipal, had written two novels, but I knew him through his prickly acuity in The Spectator, and his two riveting travel books, North of South and Black and White. The former was wry account of travels in Africa; the latter a terrifying history of the Rev Jim Jones, and Naipal’s account of visiting the Guyana jungle as officials were still cleaning up bodies after the horror of the Jonestown Massacre. Once his tour of the north of Australia was cut short, Shiva took the spare room for a time in Adelaide while he drank my cellar dry before going back to London to finish his highly contentious and much-publicised book.
But he died suddenly, of a heart attack, at his desk in August ’85. His widow, Jenny, later forwarded me an unposted letter she’d found in his papers.
“Life has been hellish,” he’d written, “and somewhat unreal since my return. Hardly had I unpacked my bags when Indira Ghandi was assassinated … the next day, at the behest of The Observer, I was on my way to Delhi … not surprisingly, given the events of the last few weeks, the Antipodes receded from the foreground of my consciousness. I am now faced with the not too easy task of restoring those six months to their proper place. If all goes reasonably well, it should be done by the autumn of ’85.” It wasn’t of course. Imperfect skerricks of it eventually found their way into An Unfinished Journey, but I think to this day his book would have blown Chatwin’s clean outa the water.
Once one had won his trust, and grown the confidence to ask him, Shiva spoke much of his fear of visiting India. He felt it would flood his writing brain, so nothing else would fit. He'd been born a Brahmin in Trinidad, and admitted that he would never be ready to visit India. It seemed to terrify him. His travail, to look at Indira Ghandi's blood for The Observer, must have been deeply confronting.
His was the most challenging, entertaining, vivid intellect I have encountered.
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