Capturing the moment: Mark Crimmins on his new book, the tactile experience of writing and his response to the COVID outbreak in Chiang Mai, January 2020
This month, we caught up with Flash Frontier contributor Mark Crimmins, whose new book Sydneyside – part travel story, part memoir – launched in the middle of a year when travel was impossible.
Mark Crimmins: I’ve been writing a series of travel diaries for a long time. I wrote the first in 2006, an account of a 15,000-km road trip around the United States. With that manuscript, An American Safari, I decided three things that continued throughout the series right up to Sydneyside: to write in the second person; to write what I saw where I saw it; and to make the record in my own way. I wanted this project’s writing to have the immediacy that comes from ‘writing the moment’ that is happening or the sequence of time that encloses the act of writing itself – often in flashes.
MC: I had wanted to visit Sydney forever but knew very little about the city and knew nobody there. I consciously went to Sydney alone to write this book and to do nothing else: to document or transcribe my encounter with the city. As a writer, I like to work within set parameters: writing sonnets; setting word limits; fixing temporal-spatial barriers. For this book, I gave myself ten days to waltz around Sydney and write the account of it. After ten days, I had 100,000 words.
MC: I’ve always loved cities and wandering through them. At some point, I began to want to transcribe that experience of negotiating the labyrinthine pathways through cityscapes. The encounter with the cityscape is always, for me, an act of ‘reading’ the city but also of ‘filming’ it in words, or ‘filming’ my mind’s perception of the city. That’s why I sometimes call my writing ‘filmic’ or ‘cinematographic’ – I’m always trying to capture the fluid and elusive movement of mind through the concrete and stable mass of cities, the urban experience, the mind in motion. I’m always mapping cities in my head, tracking my movements through them.
MC: It was interactive, spontaneous and immediate, also partly retrospective. The act of remembering a journey through a city in detail is very challenging, but I enjoy trying to freeze-frame that massed, complex reality. I tried to document the ‘sequences of action,’ the montages of observations, the varied experiences, important and inconsequential, fixed and fleeting. My process was ‘heterotopographic’: I wrote ‘on site’ in many different locations.
MC: Yes. I felt like I captured, in Day 6, the hours I spent at Tamarama Beach. There was something trance-like about being in that beach pavilion and transcribing everything I saw, with no interruptions. I felt that I captured the movement of time. I like to chart the way present experience leads us to past experience, the mnemonic triggers of our mental lives. In Day 9—when I crossed the ANZAC Bridge – I verbalized my experience of walking across that bridge, how it triggered memories of other bridges and bridge-related experiences. I am also happy with how my book recorded fleeting impressions and memorable little chats with strangers.
MC: Well, yes, my book begins with the phrase ‘you zoom.’ This has now become ‘you Zoom’—use the application – and this is why the relation between past and present is asymmetrical: because of the uncertainties and chaotic developments that unfold in time, including how technology has made our lives chaotic and enslaved us during the Pandemic. In the last few years I’ve moved from writing by hand in notebooks to writing directly into my computer. The process of transcribing what is written by hand can by exhausting. That has changed the tactile process of writing for me. The Pandemic itself became central after being incidental. I wrote a sequel to Sydneyside over four days in Chiang Mai in mid-January. At that point, I was concerned about the single case of this new virus in Chiang Mai and the fact that two people had already died of the virus in Wuhan.
Living in China, in Shenzhen, I was quick to note the first reports of the outbreak. When I got to Chiang Mai on 17 January, some people were already starting to wear masks. I recorded that feature of the cityscape in my little Chiang Mai book: a leitmotif. Back at the Hong Kong airport five days later, I was greeted at the plane’s exit by workers in hazmat suits, multiple temperature checks and layers of intense scrutiny by health officials. That was 21 January. The next day, I went to Shanghai on holiday and decided to try to write a second sequel there. By that time, 22 January, entire megacities in China were starting to shut down. I just documented my experience in the same way, but of course now I was documenting an experience of pandemic mass panic. Shanghai was a ghost town and I wrote it as a ghost town – I know its cityscape well but I had never seen it as I saw that week: deserted, empty, depopulated, eerily silent and still. We were worried about getting trapped in a Shanghai lockdown, so we fled to Tokyo and ended up trapped there for 45 days instead. I wrote that experience too, all of it, in a sort of six-week trance: it was the best chance I’ve ever had to write the astonishing Tokyo cityscape. Those writings, too, became Coronavirus diaries.
In Tokyo, I was already teaching classes on Zoom and the whole idea of ‘machine learning’ had changed. I was lecturing on Zoom from my Tokyo hotel room to my students all over China and in other countries. By the time I got back to Hong Kong in mid-March, the massive workload of the last three months of term fell on me like an avalanche, and my entire mental life was sucked into the computer interface: all teaching, all meetings with colleagues and students, all training sessions, all marking, all grading, all reporting, everything had to be done via the machine. It was overwhelming and ultimately shattering: by the end of term the keys of my computer were falling off, the letters on many keys had worn off, my hard disk was failing, the wifi hardware had disintegrated, the machine’s storage was overloaded with hundreds of electronic student assignments, recordings of lectures, student presentations, etc.
By the end of term, I too was like a machine: overloaded and broken by the Pandemic. That’s how the pandemic got me personally. It was a long time until I felt human again. I recorded it all in diaries but those diaries became dreadful accounts of my own stress and distress –antithetical to the Sydneyside diary and its Chiang Mai, Shanghai and Tokyo sequels. I see those travel diaries as joyous and affirmative. In publishing them, I aim to affirm, to give pleasure and escape to readers – but also to throw myself, as Sartre says, upon the generosity of the world.
And this, near the end of your visit to Sydney, is the first time you thought of yourself as that most Aussie of things, a Waltzing Matilda—for have you not, as the early settlers did, waltzed or walked or circled through the labyrinth of the city’s streets? Are not your wanderings nothing if not Aussie waltzes, far from the first, far from the last, that have whirled through the city’s neighbourhoods? And are not these very words, then, which you write here, your swag, your means of sustenance, your bread and butter, the home you carry on your back, you, the wily waltzing Odysseus of these down-under shores?
Soon you are at the western entrance to the bridge. Here you find the mournful, dignified statues of the soldiers, monumental and stirring. The New Zealand soldier stands in his flop-sided hat, head slightly bowed, his hands on his rifle, its butt on the ground. It is a beautiful and stately, heroic and yet also humble and contemplative statue, a wonderful monument. Across the lanes of traffic on the distributor, the Australian soldier has his head more deeply bowed. His hat has a wider brim. He too has his hands on his rifle, using it as a sort of podium. The statues take your breath away and bring a tear to your eye. You feel their evocative power, deeply moved by what they beautifully represent—the glorious dead.
All of Australia, of course, you think as you walk on, is a gigantic palimpsest—as are the Americas—of history. A place history has overwritten but whose original writing is still visible in traces, beneath that which was superimposed upon it. The original or native or aboriginal inhabitants ‘wrote’ their civilizations on the continents and then were obliterated by colonialism. But not quite, not quite completely obliterated. Underneath the massed history of the last two or four or six hundred years, there is the trace of the ancient cultures, the original inhabitants. It survives. They survive. And, bit by bit, they claw their way back into the historical narratives constructed by the colonisers, the tall tales spun by the victors. They survive, their culture survives, in the names of places, in words, in concepts, and of course in the displaced people themselves. Their history is written into the very landscape.
More about Mark Crimmins on his website.
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