In this space last week, I recalled a drive through the Australian outback - from Alice Springs to Ayer's Rock - during which I managed to miss the only turn for 500 kilometres due to marijuana intoxication. The same journey was notable also for the most extreme coincidence involving children's literature. We were bombing along, the desert on either side of the thin, tarmac strip, dimming from ochre, to magenta, to purple; my wife was reading our then two-year-old son a jolly little book that had the hook line: "Children, children what do you see?" Whereupon the lector turned the page to reveal a creature, then chanted - hopefully accompanied by the compliant kiddie - "I see a green turtle looking at me!"
She had just got to the point where the chant was "I see a red bird looking at me!" when a large red bird flew into the windscreen, leaving a smear of blood, a few wing feathers and a large crack. Shocked as much by the synchronicity as the near-fatal SVR ("Single Vehicle Rollover" as this most common accident is termed in Australia) I pulled over and panted atop the wheel for a few minutes. "If you think that was a lucky escape," my wife said after a while, "on the next page there's a blue horse."
The Australian outback is also the location for another weird children's classic happening. In 1988 I was staying with my father in Canberra, where he lived. I was reading CS Lewis's The Magician's Nephew, and found myself riveted - yet again - by the scenes set in The Wood Between the Worlds. For those of you without a strong, internal map of Narnia, let me recap: this bizarre place is a sort of metaphysical lobby. A smooth expanse of bright green sward is interspersed with tall trees, and at their feet are a series of perfectly circular pools. Dive into any one of these and you can be transported to a different world at a different time. To our own world, to Narnia, to the shattered palaces of Charn, where a moribund empire crumbles beneath the rays of a dying sun.
It's a nice conceit - The Wood Between the Worlds - showing that Lewis, despite his devout Christianity, had an appreciation of the infinite possibilities of space-time unleashed by Einstein and Heisenberg. Less nice was discovering that the Wood truly existed; for when I arrived in Central Australia a few days later I saw on my host's wall a photograph of a place that was chillingly similar. "Where's that?" I asked him, and he laconically replied "That? That's X's country, that's his dreaming."
I should qualify some of this: my host was a white Australian who for many years had lived and worked among the Aboriginals. He had the healthy scepticism of most such people towards the Aboriginal belief system, but over time this had been eroded by contact and a need to get on. It's difficult in a culture where all relationships are defined by kinship and the uninitiated lack individuality to get much done, so eventually my friend underwent initiation into the tribe he was working with. This was his explanation, a mutual friend's was more pithy: "Why'd he get initiated? He was only living next door to the biggest fucking wizard in Central Australia!" The wizard was, of course, X - and when I saw the photo of his country I began to suspect he'd gone to work on me as well.
I suspected it more when I wrote a novel, some of which was set in Centralia, and included X as a character under his real name. Throughout the manuscript and copyediting stages I kept reminding myself to change this - yet for some bizarre reason I never did. When the bound proofs arrived I called my initiated friend in Australia and asked him if he thought X would mind. "Mind!" he expostulated, "You've only gone and thieved his spirit. You'll have to do something - and fast." I concurred - during my time in the outback I'd heard plenty of disquieting stories about scribes who'd fallen foul of the traditional people. Some said that Bruce Chatwin had had the bone pointed on him for what he wrote concerning tjuringas, the Aboriginal "spirit boards", in his book The Songlines. Others ascribed Shiva Naipaul's premature death to dismissive remarks he'd made about the Aboriginals.
Through my friend a deal was negotiated: all copies of the offending book that were due for sale in Australia were to be reprinted. Plus I was to give the wizard X AU$1,500, a new hunting rifle and a set of cooking pots. It seemed I'd got off very lightly, considering a lingering and painful death might have been the alternative. Either that or the mystical blue horse plunging at me out of the desert. E