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Sport 38: Winter 2010

Rediscovering Frank Cloud

Rediscovering Frank Cloud

There seem to have been an unusual number of sightings on the Kapiti Coast.

Yes, definitely, and that's one of the reasons so many artists and writers have moved out there. Of course, how many of these sightings actually happened can be disputed—I mean, the coast—there was a lot of drinking going on out there and, these days, cannabis and, and so forth. You get poets, Sleevely for instance, who claimed to have seen a mermaid every week, on the way home from the pub. Perhaps he did.

What about Frank Cloud?

Oh—definitely. But the amazing thing about Cloud was that he could never recognise it as a genuine event, as something that was intended for him. Basically, he refused to accept the gift. There's a line in Night Fishing where the narrator says of the protagonist, Harvey Stretch, 'He could never fully profit from the experience because he did not page 263 believe it was meant for him.' That was absolutely Frank Cloud's experience.

So 'Night Fishing' is autobiographical?

About the mermaid sighting, yes. There's that early episode in the novel when Stretch sees the mermaid, but the mermaid isn't looking at him. Its attention is on someone else. Harvey Stretch is looking at the mermaid look at someone else—presumably, Toshio Satoe. Then when the woman comes to his house out of the night and the storm, and he invites her in and they become lovers—the same thing happens. He can't believe that she has chosen him. He suspects that she is looking past him, as it were, at another man. Doubt gnaws at him and the fact that she can't tell him anything about her past turns his doubt into conviction.

That seems more the case after the scene at the marae.

At Wairaka marae Harvey Stretch sees the carving of the marakihau —a taniwha with serpent tail and a human face and body. The carving has a profound effect on him. He becomes convinced that the woman and the mermaid are one and the same and that she is a marakihau—a sea-monster. So his suspicions become more and more outrageous, and lead to predictably tragic consequences.

Was that also true of Cloud?

I don't know about tragic. But, certainly, he wasn't able to acknowledge his own gift. Night Fishing is—in my opinion—one of the finest novels written by a New Zealander. But Cloud never published it. It was all there, basically. He just couldn't push it out into the world—couldn't acknowledge it. There's definitely this aspect to his life that was, well, disappointing. Yet for all of that, I think Cloud came closest to expressing the essential nature of the mermaid.

What did he say?

There's a scene at the end of Night Fishing, when Harvey Stretch is packing his suitcase—ironically, with the things he intends to leave behind. When he is preparing to go out and, in the words of the narrator 'step off the rim of the world'. He is looking at a photograph page 264 of the woman, the only memento of her he has left, and he asks 'What was the gift of the mermaid, its true nature?' And the answer he gives is, 'The gift was love, nothing but love'.