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Thursday, July 30, 2009

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".....To which you are invited. To which you are invited. To which you are invited. I say this in triplicate, being a good bureaucrat: the enemy of all poets. Ah! Such is life. Anyway, I bid you
adieu, and trust you have a very merry morn, etc etc. Que serra! Bye!”







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There were hundreds at the Grey Lynn Library, for the dead man, most recently a book seller but previously a highly successful and very renowned film critic who had the audience of such as Scorcese and many others such as Jane Fonda (of whom “Oh blast, I’ve lost Jane Fonda’s phone number from my wallet”!), but who also campaigned throughout the world against Apartheid and war as she did, and who was very well known to Labour Party people such as Phil Goff, Mike Rann, Mike Moore (the ex-Prime Minister of NZ); and others both of such exalted and of “lower” rank, who spoke at the funeral. Brendon Maher, and Viggo Monrad were others who spoke strongly, or angrily but passionately and interestingly, about the deceased. There were hundreds. I saw many booksellers, a number of writers (such as Bob Orr, Jen Crawford, Michael Steven, Colin Munn, and John Bentley, who were - at least - four I knew), many locals of Grey Lynn how had attended his book “soirees” held often of a Friday evening.

Of the the booksellers / collectors, I saw Brian who had the Moa Hunter Book Shop in Ponsonby Road until fairly recently. (Brian confessed to liking books of poetry later in the evening). It was tothat shop atht Brent repaired, to find how to organise and run a book shop. I also saw Rowan and Brendan Waters.

My daughter Tamasin and Gerhard Lotermoser who met at one of these evenings went on to produce my grandson before separating (in reasonably civilized manner, or as much as such separations can be “good” or even positive in some cases). So my grandson was also there. (Interviewed later, at the Polish Club where the “eats” were held, he confided and concurred with me from his 7 years’ wisdom, solemnly putting lollies into his mouth, that it had indeed been a “good funeral”). And it was, the service was not overly preachy as more conventional Christian or other funerals can be, and while it was about the death of a well and very popular and much loved man, a bookseller and an ex-journalist, musician and film expert: it was interesting and even "uplifting" by the very lack of dubious appeals to scary and vague ideals such as "eternal life", resurrection, and so on. It was dignified, but far from solemn or tedious.

And there, also, was I, one of “God’s spies”, and my son Victor, another; and my ex wife Mary Manoah, of course, who helped with the catering. Her friend and general poet Daniel Harrison (who read an excellent and moving account / poem (with music by and organized by Gerhard) of a trip taken by Brent Lewis, for that was the dead man’s name, and his latter days.
Phil Goff (who had known him since his University days where Brent’s passion had been film and politics, and was still a very close friend) and others such as his friend Viggo Monrad who and known him in squats in London where he notoriously flooded his apartment, both gave very funny and moving accounts of his life and in particular, that despite his great ability to write about film, of which subject his knowledge was huge, and take part in political activism, he was enormously unpractical and sometimes very absentminded in his daily affairs. A great laugh was raised when it was revealed by Goff that, after Brent had lost his passport, rather a useful object to have for syndicated and globe trotting journo, (albeit a rather Pickwickian or at the very least, a Dickensian, one); for the eighth time!!; the Department of Internal Affairs contacted him as number two to Helen Clark, concerned about this Brent Lewis character…wondering what his game was!! Alas the explanation was known to anyone who loved and knew Brent, as I, and my friend Greg Brimblecombe did. For Brent was Brent. Loved? Perhaps “loved” is too strong a word. I felt a lot for him, had a number of conversations and interactions (about books etc) but I didn’t know him closely.

My love was not of a deeply personal or emotional kind, but I feel still a sad sense of loss when I think of him . His abrupt passing was a shock to me, as it was to many. He was greatly liked. And I liked him, and in his insidious way, he had "grown"on me . For Brent, love him or not, was undeniable. But their were some who took advantage of his generosity with money or his tendency to evade certain of the realities of life. Or rather, he let them do so.

Of course he was not faultless, and his own demise, the method of it, might be seen by some as "self-centred", or even indulgent. An indulgent death! And we all say or think things like that when someone suddenly departs this sphere. So some were at first a bit angered, annoyed, or infuriated, at hearing of his death, and it's manner.

Certainly Brent was and could be infuriating, despite his kindness, gentleness and wit. (Many also talked of his courage and his good-natured welcoming attitude in the shop, which made them feel "at home"). But exasperating he could be. He phoned me about 20 times asking for the phone number of a mutual friend. I happened to know it easily as it was one of those very easy numbers to memorize! And I suggested, tentatively, that Brent take the extreme, and undoubtedly radical, measure for him, of purchasing an address book! But his conversations were amusing. Here is him urging (on a telephone message me to come to one of his “gatherings” (It went):

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Sir Richard! [this humoresque mock reverential address arose from the time Ron Riddell poet and owner of the Dead Poet’s Book Store had myself, Harry Cording etc “knighted” by Anne Jones], are you in the land of the living? If so, I’m glad to hear it (!). I trust you’re ready for the great do on Saturday. Now I just have happened to have found or acquired, a book of poetry, inscribed to you: Valparaiso by the Bob Orr, inscribed very personally to you, inscribed indeed with an inscription which will please you very much, I can read said inscription in the morning, or tomorrow sometime, if you care to ring me at Nostromo [Brent’s book shop in Grey Lynn] ; or you can keep it for your very own special treat for Saturday night, when, you remember there is fabulous Nostromo party. To which you are invited. To which you are invited. To which you are invited. I say this in triplicate, being a good bureaucrat: the enemy of all poets. Ah! Such is life. Anyway, I bid you adieu, and trust you have a very merry morn, etc etc. Que serra! Bye!”

Such a gem of a message was typical of Brent in a good mood. Of course his tone was mock-serious and deliberately “overdone”.

But he was not always so talkative or in such high spirits. He had inherited cash and property in Otahuhu, and had been an exceptionally successful journalist, syndicated and indeed often even asked for by famous film makers, stars, writers, and others. He wrote beautifully and insightfully about film. One of his first interviews it was said, was with Betty Davis. He had books inscribed by Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, and others. He told me of his encounters with two of my favourite comedians, Dudley Moore (in the U.S.) and Peter Cook (in England) He was ‘attacked’ once (verbally) by de Niro.




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Brent's passion was movies. Poster and scenes from a famous film. He once reviewed a biography of
Marlin Brando.


…. The frisson and magic of film and Americana was his world. But he felt and acted strongly on many issues of justice and civil rights. The Holocaust, Apartheid, the Vietnam War were some of the issues he attacked or addressed. He was tireless in this sense. He assisted Labour Party politics until a few days before his death. Through the Labour Party, he pushed for better rights and the good recognition of Maoritanga at a time it wasn’t fashionable to do so. While he was no fool, or naïf, he perhaps lacked the edge, or at least the organisation, to engage in the real war of parliamentary debate and the personal viciousness often encountered in that particular combat zone.
One New Year’s eve, he surprised me by sitting at the piano, and playing quite beautifully, but he seemed shy. He had talent as a musician and had been, and was, a very good singer. The more recent photo below (with the green jacket and a drink) shows him rather edgy, it was taken a year ago. Earlier photos at the “funeral” showed him as happy and a very good-looking young man, setting out on his road to a life of adventure. He had very little guile. A “protest” against his shop in Grey Lynn and other pressures, and disappointments, and perhaps an inability to deal with certain “big issues” (Viggo Monrad was, because very sad, quite angry about this side of Brent) lead to breakdown in about 2006 and a general decline in his interest in the book trade and in fact in life. It was said he was "running on empty" by Viggo. I had urged him to write the story of his own life in film (or to even write a novel, or to return to journalism) and as journalist - for he had traversed the globe and had written (often beautifully, always insightfully) about so many films and had seen so many famous people he had met. And these famous "stars" would seek Brent out in many cases. He had charm and a facility in converse with such people. And he was likable, concerned and kindly to anyone. (He was never a "star struck snob"). Nor was he a fool. Given the faults that plague us all - he was a good and a likable man.





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Brent in better times.

This “failure”, his inability to settle on a new venture, or tackle those who took advantage of his generosity, his disappointments in love, and his loneliness, and other darker, and perhaps unknowable, and inexpressible, depths of the blackness of his moods, and finally his desperation, led him, on the night of Friday the 12th of June, to leap from a six story building in Symonds Street (Auckland) to an almost histrionic, yet very real, death; as John Berryman and Paul Celan leapt off bridges and into rivers, and to their respective deaths in the U.S. and France.

John Berryman, who is picture below, and a poet I greatly admire, was an alcoholic most of his life having witnessed as boy his father’s death by a handgun. Paul Celan, who was Jewish and also a great poet, was tormented by the effects of his parents’ death at the hands of the Nazis.

Brent, who was also Jewish, but not primarily interested in poetry, took us all once to film based on events in Nazi Germany. This is distant connection of course. Suicide happens everywhere and in all classes. Why does it occur? A major reason according to one study I read is simply financial depletion. It beats love. Or it did in that study. No one knows. Virginia Woolf, of whom every one is either afraid, or in awe: and who'se husband was Jewish – committed suicide by walking into river and drowning as, as well as a mind attack which prevented her from writing or reading; the terrible Nazis were gaining full control of Europe. Not only was she chronically tormented, but she and her husband knew that Hitler had terrible plans for such as them and many others if England were to fall. And yet, even in years when her “madness” was most intense, she worked with enormous productivity on novels, journal articles, her diary and more. Woolf, in her great novel “Mrs Dalloway” (certainly very influenced by Joyce, but in some ways in my view it surpasses ‘Ulysses’ which she read, and, outwardly, at least, let herself be “shocked” or disgusted by it): confronts madness, and the book climaxes with the suicide of a “main character” and thus she deals with the agony of a man or anyone disintegrating mentally under the horror of an internal psychological malaise, which is perhaps the more terrible or powerful; as we know that Woolf was, like Sylvia Plath, quite tragically afflicted in this way by depression, suicidal actions and thoughts and deep mental suffering. Perhaps too it more intensely confronts deep issues of psychological suffering caused by war and isolation and other causes that Joyce evades, as indeed he evaded, to some degree, truths of Ireland’s conflicts and tragedies and that of the First World War.
Not entirely though, and of course these writers are very different, in fact both, with their deep insights and powerful abilities with language, may have been capable of delving into the mind of someone such as Brent.

The understanding and potential elucidation of such a life and death as Brent's, would require the satire and complexity of a Joyce and the depth and compassion of a Woolf (!).

Berryman, who was a chronic alcoholic, somewhat offset or combated his nightmares by writing his brilliant poetic series Dream Songs. Through these, it has been argued,the very fragmentation of self or selves was in a deep way actually therapeutic, but also a way of creating a profound, oscillating music, of his mind and heart.

Why have I connected these three people? Brent would be interested, but his main passion was film. Film and not plays, and not much of poetry. (But he did appreciate good writing and also poetry). Yet he was concerned for human justice and that implies a concern for human happiness. He was deeply sensitive. He was also, when he was not vastly impractical, quite urbane in his own way.
Perhaps a deeper concern for these “great” examples such as Woolf and Berryman might help us to speculate on the horror and suffering he experienced in his last days as he searched for contact, for a place to live, and perhaps for love: and finally threw himself to his death.

Also, of course, I had the pictures on my files. The sight of these connected me by association to Brent and his life and death.


Brent Lewis as I saw him about a year before his death. He could be infuriating. Here he looks edgy.
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John Berryman. U.S. poet. An alcoholic (Brent had mainly overcome his drink problems when he died). Berryman, one of perhaps the world's greatest poets was haunted by the nightmare of seeing his own father kill himself by a hand gun. His poetry was superb. He fought his own darknesses with humour, love, and lyricism. He jumped from a bridge as did Paul Celan another victim of the Holocaust. Brent threw himself also to the earth but not into water - rather to the ground off Symonds Street in Auckland. Those who found him say he looked peaceful in death. Brent's great passion was film not poetry. Also it was Americana and he had an interest in the Holocaust (and many other deep human problems) as did Berryman. Susan Sontag considered the Nazi Horror to be the problem or issue of the 20th Century. It's monstrous crime still haunts us. There is a tragi-comic aspect to this drama. As in that famous "revenger" play - Hamlet. One tries and fails to visualise Brent sailing (or is that "plummeting"?) through the air to his demise in a kind of mythic Icarian action.


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My "angle"on Virginia Woolf ... shows her face on the cover of my huge biography of her (written by Hermione Lee). My copy of Richard Ellmann's great biography of James Joyce, who influenced her "inner" style, but whose "Ulysses" she was rather dubious, or 'disapproving,' of; I obtained from Brent's shop.

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Picture of a Nazi Death Camp

Brent focused a lot on the Holocaust, perhaps as he was part Jewish.
This also is part of the "horror" Woolf may have feared, one extra reason perhaps, that lead to her tragic suicide.

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Perhaps a deeper concern for these “great” examples such as Woolf and Berryman might help us to speculate on the horror and suffering he experienced in his last days as he searched for contact, for a place to live, and perhaps for love: and finally threw himself to his death.

Also, of course, I had the pictures on my files. The sight of these connected me by association to Brent and his life and death.



Brent Lewis as a child, and a young man setting out with excitement and hope, on life's great adventure.



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But mostly, in my memory, and in pictures I have here taken of him (he is invariably smiling), he was quite happy, especially when he began his enterprise of opening the Nostromo bookshop. He became an almost legendary figure in Grey Lynn society, talking with musicians, book dealers, collectors, readers of various kinds, artists, workers of various kinds, politicos, poets, “cadgers” and the dispossessed from the streets who he invariably leant money to: or to such as Peter Williams QC, the passionate lawyer who defended Arthur Allen Thomas and many others, and loved to visit Brent’s shop. Many others also, including his friends Greg Brimblecombe (poet and book seller); and the passionate collector of Russian books Greg Linton (brother of the cartoonist and artist Barry). And Brent and the Gregs restlessly scoured book fairs and many places to acquire his stock of books.

It made me think of suicide and suffering, of waste, but also it reminded me of the courage that people of sensitivity can summon. Their suicides may anger or sadden us. And “they” include people from all walks of life whether they write or create “high art” or, like most of us who are “ordinary”, and live variously our various lives, perhaps of “quiet desperation” or of high passion, joy and or despair. We speculate on the mystery of each being’s experience. And we wonder, but we cannot know.


Bookseller Brent in the "heyday" of his Nostromo Books days.


The "party" at the Polish Club ended with eats and drinks and Mike Moore organised a sing along about the famous trade uninionist and activist Joe Hill who was, probably quite wrongly, shot for murder in a very right wing U.S. (the other side of Brent's American dream) ... Colin Munn in his "motley", stood by the besuited, "Red Fed Marxists" singing. And it was good, if a little incongruous, as I said to (a rather tipsy) Moore. (But his political experience stood him in good stead versus my sobriety and chastening comments: as he rightly ignored my query as to his 'alliegence' to the working class). But the song was relevant. Brent had been an activist, and he really cared for people. And it said something of the alliegences of Brent and, let's allow - the idealism of his friends in the Labour Party. For idealism and hope everywhere.

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An image of beauty for Brent Lewis - Requiescat in pacem, Brent meum amicum.





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11 comments:

jen said...

beautiful tribute - thanks Richard.

Richard Taylor said...

Jen - thanks. I was looking through my pictures on file and it spurred me on!

Michael Steven said...

Hi Richard,

This is a wonderful memorial piece.

He was a generous, kind-hearted man.
Many times in his store, he would refuse to take payment for books,
& would often run across to Occam
& return with coffee for us both.

He gave me my copy of Atua Wera.

Richard Taylor said...

Michael

I just posted a long reply and then lost it!

Thanks - I see you are dong some Latin takes - poetry

Yes Brent was a great loss - I recall him and I listening in silence for along time to some really interesting and beautiful piano music...it was a great experience.

After the really stupid protest about his shop he had a breakdown and e was at my daughters ex boy friend - Gerhard and I saw him a lot there - he walked a lot and lost weight and got his drinkng under control - I did try to get him motivated in a kind of jocular way...but he was lonely in love and impractical and so on (he was easily a deeply hurt I suspect) - things didn't go well - perhaps it was also the the winter I don't know...

A lot of people knew him and he was not arrogant at all...

Sad - like the loss of Leicester it makes a gap in my and others lives...

Richard

Tim Selwyn said...

Thanks for the memories and images, Richard.

Richard said...

Thanks Tim! All the best.

kina sai said...

I was just missing him today. So little of him remains now. Thanks for writing this. It keeps him around for us.

Richard said...

Thanks kina - Brent was larger than life. He also had quite some musical talent and played the piano very well. I heard him play one New Years Eve. Had he lived he would have been 63 now with more time left. Sad. RT.

Melanie Earley said...

I have been searching for so long on the internet to find things about Brent! This is lovely and thank you so much for writing this, Brent was my mums cousin and we used to visit him every christmas when I was younger, I was 13 when he died and have always been intrigued by the story behind him, we didn't see him much in the last few years and I know my Mum felt bad about this showing her this page I think will be good :)
I'm studying journalism at university and it makes me sad knowing I'll never be able to talk to him about such things.
I remember once when i was very little we went to his for christmas and me and my sister walked along the beach and found a dead crab and brought it to his house and left it on the couch, when we came back next christmas the crab was still sitting there in exactly the same place!
Thanks so much for writing this

Richard said...

That's good! I should have labelled this obit in a more "findable" way. Funny story about the crab! Yes, he was an interesting fellow. I didn't see him as much as say Greg Linton, Greg Brimblecombe and Gerhard Lottermoser. Gerhard and Greg Brimble and I are on Face Book. So you could face one of some of us. Gerhard (my grandson's father) knew him well.
Yes, it is sad he was a journalist and you are studying that now. I didn't talk much to him about that. I was interested that he visited Dudley Moore in the US and so on, as I am still a big fan of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. But there were many stories at the funeral from Phil Goff and others in the Labour Party.
I have to admit I had forgotten this post (in detail). I got a bit carried away with all my images etc. I think by the way that it was Virginia Woolf's husband who was Jewish or half Jewish. I possibly overdid the holocaust thing.
But it was all in a good cause. Hope you are going well. Keep in contact. Richard.

Richard said...

V.gd. RT