Sport 15: white horse black dog
As a child I watched the roads of the fifties from the back windows of cars that trailed dustclouds across landscapes whose features were observed through a kind of fog which also dropped a grey-brown patina on everything near at hand.
These dustclouds blew across nibbled plains or wide gravel riverbeds toward parched, blond foothills which themselves looked like mounds of sand; or toward gorse-covered slopes which often were burning.
Or else I looked outside windows whose sills cut off telephone and electricity poles halfway up their height, and reduced the perspectives of the Wairau Plains to distant horizons. The poles, as they stumbled past with their swooping rhythms of sagging wires, were superimposed on a distant prospect to which they were not connected. There was no middle ground.
At night, the headlamps would peer ahead into a tunnel of darkness which I could hear rushing past—the darkness had a sound, and it had an end-wall as well, you could see the beams of the headlamps flatten against it, pushing it forward of the car.
Eventually this end-wall became the back of the garage in Francis Street, Blenheim. It advanced right up to the car’s windscreen, and in the moment before the lights went out I’d see the makeshift stage-set there: a canvas grass-catcher with a wire rim that always resembled a mask, some shelves of dribbled-down paintpots, cast-up boating gear.
These apparitions, in the intense light of the headlamps on the end-wall of darkness, were given an extra reality, they were transformed into mysteries or dramas which the dim light of reality, next day, could only make banal.
But at night, at the end of the car ride, the sound of the dark that had rushed past like a tunnel was passed on into the crunching of gravel under my father’s shoes as he carried me down the path to the house. I page 151 pretended to be asleep then, existing like the garage-wall apparitions in some other place, or, as I would say now, in some other consciousness. But at the moment the house was entered and the lights switched on, I truly did fall asleep—did desire to—because the magic of seeing the world from a car window, and of hearing the rushing darkness, was finished. The middle grounds had all filled up. Everything was in its place, there was nothing to see.
Looking out the car window was a kind of dreaming, a dreaming I could know I was in and could direct—I could drive it—it was a trance or rapture, and the next best prolongation of that was actual sleep in which, as often as not, I would continue to be transported, but unpredictably and uncontrollably, sometimes attempting to brake a dreadful sensation of falling, or striving helplessly to run with limbs that had become paralysed, or striving to slow a pell-mell stampede toward another kind of end-wall, one I would be about to smash into.
Waking from these exciting nightmares, I would pound on the wall to my parent’s bedroom, and be told to go back to sleep, I was just overtired, it was the effect of the long trip.
What I didn’t understand then, as I lay half-heartedly resisting sleep, but understand better now, is that these nightmares of transport were the result of a way of looking: they were smearings or skiddings or warpings of the bliss of looking out the car window.
Because that serial flicker of insignificance, that remote, detached horizon, those unpredictable moments of startling revelation—some hallucinatory and sudden moment or detail, a billboard or gorse-fire, a strange animal, some transfixing expression or gesture or, almost, defect in a roadside bystander—that ribbon of hypnotic boredom, unfocused by speed and dust, interrupted by fleeting shocks, was powerfully in itself another kind of vision, which is to say another kind of truth, a truth approaching fiction, halfway between facts and rapture.
And this kind of looking, which was like a reclamation of the disregarded, had its most obvious corollary in the snapshots my father took, obsessively, in which years later I would recognise the same drift away from facts—seeing even the most mundane items of record (the car, the family, the beach) warped into another kind of consciousness, page 152 presenting themselves against the end-walls of another kind of vision. Even at its most organised, with domestic archival optimisms and sternness marking its features, this photography wore a fantastic expression; the banal became fabulous, unwanted or disregarded details would suddenly take over.
As a child, I loved the surprising makeshifts of foregrounds revealed when cars stopped and their doors opened—benzene pumps above oily gravel, boatshed litter, the ad hoc magnificence of disreputable sites: derelict farm machinery, the storm-beach of wrack and rusty tins on to which the car had advanced recklessly risking getting stuck, the kerbside theatre of feet, perambulators, dogs.
And as an adult I still respond with special affection to service station forecourts and the like—buy a bag of potato chips and some drinks for the kids and drive on as though into some frontier, with a hapless sense of optimistic adventure. Even the melancholy of these images—their sentiment, nostalgia, desolation sometimes, their inconsequentiality, their poor grip on time and purpose, their uncommitted souls, their deferrals of significance, their irresolute or offhand or even indifferent occupations of memory—even this melancholy becomes a kind of celebration: becomes an emotional passage as the car or bus sets forth again through what is at once so familiar and so piercingly strange.