The Fictional Genealogies of David Mitchell
One day when I opened the document to do some more work on this talk, I found I’d left a note I didn’t remember making. It read: genealogy and lament: one a hope for the future; the other, a cry for what might have been. What could this mean? I’d forgotten. I thought about it. Did it mean, if you can’t go back for more than a couple of generations, and so many of us in the antipodes can’t, that on the one hand gives us something to lament over but on the other frees us from the past? Perhaps.
Dave Mitchell didn’t know much about his immediate antecedents. His mother, Etta, was Glasgow born, her mother was a MacDonald from the Highlands who’d come down to the city to look for a husband. The man she found was Ross Cousins, from Belfast, who was working in the shipyards at Strathclyde. There were nine children, the first four of them girls. Three of those nine, all women, ended up working as domestics on a sheep station called Maraekakaho in Hawkes Bay in the 1920s.
He knew even less about his father: reputedly an Irish Jew, born 1880 in western Sydney, who ran away from home aged 12 and went to sea; and lived a roving life as a sailor and also a rabbiter in outback Australia; until an accident at the Port of Napier left him stranded and he too made his way to Maraekakaho, where he met Etta. There was allegedly a wife in Sydney about whom nothing is known.
It isn’t unusual to people your genealogy with suppositions of various kinds. In one version, Mitchell’s paternal forebears were Sephardic Jews from North Africa who made there way somehow to Dublin and thence to the Antipodes; in another, Mitchell’s father was the only child of a Russian woman who in some unknown year fled Moscow with her son via Vladivostok and Shanghai for Sydney.
Mitchell is in fact a common name and, in Australia at least, publicly so. Thomas Livingstone Mitchell, an irascible Scot who won his job in a duel, was an early 19th C NSW Surveyor-General who, during four expeditions inland looking to trace the river system now called the Murray-Darling, left his name everywhere: the town of Mitchell in Queensland, the federal electorate of Mitchell, Mitchell College in Wodonga, Victoria.
There is a Mitchell's Hopping Mouse. There are Mitchell Falls, the Mitchell Highway, Mitchell Park, Mitchell Plateau, Mitchell's Lookout, Mitchell River and a Sir Thomas Mitchell Road in Bondi where I once stopped in my cab to pick up a $10.00 note, the one with Henry Lawson on it, that was rolling along the street there.
There’s also a bird: Major Mitchell's Cockatoo, a pink and white parrot, cousin to the Galah, with an orange and yellow and white crest which, when upraised in the wild, can resemble some sort of impossible dessert, apricots and cream perhaps, balanced on its head.
Two veritable David Mitchells figure in later 19th century Australian history. One was the reclusive book collector and bibliophile who bequeathed his vast collection to the state of NSW so long as they built a library to house it; they did, and the Mitchell Library in Macquarie Street, Sydney is not only a beautiful building, it is one of the great libraries of the world, with an unparalleled collection of books, maps, documents, manuscripts etc relating to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific.
The other David Mitchell is known not so much for himself as for his daughter. Helen Porter Mitchell, born 1861 at Richmond, Melbourne, was the eldest surviving of ten children of this David Mitchell, a builder, and his wife Isabella; we know her better as Dame Nellie Melba, the opera singer, who has entered Australian folklore in various guises. More comebacks than Melba is one phrase you’ll still hear; and if you’re lucky you might have tasted a Peach Melba (peaches on a bed of vanilla ice-cream with raspberry purée poured over), which is a better option than trying to eat the crest of a Major Mitchell cockatoo.
Dave Mitchell, the poet, according to his daughters, sometimes claimed a family connection to Nellie Melba; and he certainly dedicated a poem, Melba Hooks, to her; she also figures, with another Australian identity, in one called Bewdie Resists Time’s Deluge at Nimbin NSW. That other identity is Henry Lawson, one of Dave Mitchell’s father, Old Dave’s, favourite writers.
Lawson also has a character called Mitchell who appears and re-appears throughout the short stories that he wrote in the 1890s. Jack Mitchell is a canny, generous if sometimes acerbic swagman, a man who left the woman he loves behind in unexplained circumstances eight years before and has since lived his life on the road. A list of Henry Lawson stories in which he appears, in roughly chronological order, sounds almost like a story in themselves; or perhaps a plot for a story. They are:
Mitchell: A Character Sketch
On The Edge Of A Plain
Shooting The Moon
Bill, the Ventriloquial Rooster
Mitchell Doesn't Believe in the Sack
Another of Mitchell's Plans
Just as Dave Mitchell liked to speculate that he might have been a scion of the family that produced Nellie Melba, he also seems to have entertained the notion that his own father could have been the original of Henry Lawson’s Jack Mitchell: not perhaps in any real or definite sense, the dates don’t add up, but in a more diffuse, perhaps occulted, manner.
Let’s now jump forward to the 1970s, and I’ll read you a poem by an Australian poet whose name you will probably all know; but I’m not going to say it just yet. I will however say that the busaria blossom mentioned in line five is the flower of the Australian Christmas bush, roughly equivalent to the NZ pohutukawa, whose seed capsule, a blushing red-orange, loads the small tree with colour in December. The poem is called:
I am seeing this: two men are sitting on a pole
they have dug a hole for and will, after dinner, raise
I think for wires. Water boils in a prune tin.
Bees hum their shift in unthinning mists of white
bursaria blossom, under the noon of wattles.
The men eat big meat sandwiches out of a styrofoam
box with a handle. One is overheard saying:
drought that year. Yes. Like trying to farm the road.
The first man, if asked, would say I'm one of the Mitchells.
The other would gaze for a while, dried leaves in his palm,
and looking up, with pain and subtle amusement,
say I'm one of the Mitchells. Of the pair, one has been rich
but never stopped wearing his oil-stained felt hat. Nearly everything
they say is ritual. Sometimes the scene is an avenue.
Anyone know who wrote that?
Curiously, or perhaps not, when in 1947 Dave Mitchell’s family were forced to move from the former manse they rented in Karori into a state house in Bolton Terrace, Te Aro, they found themselves living just up the road from the almost forgotten Wellington suburb of Mitchelltown.
Mitchelltown is or was towards the western end of the Aro Valley, that branch of the gully up which Holloway Road climbs. It was founded by one Henry Mitchell, a man with a social conscience who built, and solicited government help to build, small cottages there for unskilled workers – mainly watersiders and casual labourers – in the 1870s.
There’s a memorial in Mitchelltown bearing the names of 102 young men from the valley who served in the First World War. Nineteen of them were killed and thirty-two wounded in action. There isn’t a Mitchell on the list but there are plenty of sets of brothers with Irish or Scots names. Carmodys, Gordons, Loughlins, one of whom won a Croix de Guerre. A man called Melody and another called Sherlock.
I like to think of the young Dave Mitchell walking westward up the Aro Valley one day and coming across this war memorial; I imagine him reading through that list of names looking for clues to his own ancestry. He wouldn’t have found any individual there that he could confidently claim as a forebear; but on the other hand, who knows? Perhaps we are all somehow brothers and sisters to each other.
As I said, when I found that errant note I didn’t really know what it meant in general nor in the particular case of Dave Mitchell. Now I think that genealogy and lament, while they might encompass some of what he did and said, don’t begin to cover his range. There is a quality in Mitchell’s writing that escapes all categories. It might be characterised as freedom and/or chaos; it might appear as ungovernable rage or pain and subtle amusement; it might manifest as a lyric intensity of extreme purity; it might even be sometimes called, to use an old fashioned word, joy. Or it might escape these categories too.
I’ll end by quoting another poem, one that Dave wrote at Menton in 1975. It’s maybe about escaping categories; or it could be about ignoring them; or it might be about something else entirely. I’m not going to say the title at the head because, as you will hear, that title is also the last word of the poem:
take up a stick
find suitable stones
a little cement
& some water
break the earth
feed it, brother &
it will feed you !
well tell you all
you wish to know
of this prison
you are about
to build . . .
might as well save time
& finally accept
the charm &
on the silence
of the universe
you will want
notes . . . nothing
with that !
music’s the magic
against the abyss
& wild beasts &
is a wild beast. go
no more honourable task
a man’s evening. a song
is an eternity
even a poor song
especially a poor song
like the drone
of the driftwood & th pebbles
like the harmonies that are not
in this poem
like the friends who
do not sit in yr houses
but are there , nevertheless
like the sea
like the mouths of the sea
like the winds
& philosophers & you & me
chained like wild beasts
in this poem
yes. the one i now persuade
myself: is coming to an end
the one i am about to call