Antipodean Musings on a Friend: Jim Christy
by Donald Kerr
|Donald Kerr in the Press Room, University of Otakou, Dunedin|
It was about 1989 when I first met Jim Christy. I was working in the rare book collection at Auckland Public Library (now Sir George Grey Special Collections), starting there on the auspicious date of 8 August 1988 (a fire at the library that day prevented me from actually starting work). My surrounds included a plush blue carpet, a number of exhibition cabinets, three reading tables, and an office, enclosed with sliding glass windows. It was heavenly, and visitors calling had to have persistence to battle through the public floors, and take the stairs or lift to the rare books collection, the only public area on the second floor. I cannot remember what time of the day it was, but Christy walked in and peering through the glass windows said – in his distinctive drawl – ‘Donald Kerr’. I replied in the affirmative. I have no distinct recall on what was said after that, but we did end up mentioning Blaise Cendrars. Indeed, that was how we connected. Christy had seen my name in Feuille de Routes, the bulletin of the Blaise Cendrars Society, and although only my home address was listed (see No. 17, November 1987), he had somehow tracked me down. In New Zealand. Christy is good like that! And we would have talked about Henry Miller, the American writer whom I had corresponded with briefly, and who had introduced me to Cendrars, John Cowper Powys, Knut Hamsun, and a whole host of other writers through his Books in My Life (1952), a passionate appreciation about all those writers, stories and narratives that had influenced Miller. (Miller dedicates a chapter to Cendrars in Books in My Life, pp. 58-80). I probably took Christy to tea in the staffroom and continued our discussion. However, on this first fleeting meeting there is one thing I do remember. At one stage, Christy asked me if he could borrow $100. He was not ‘skint’; it was for tyre repairs on a rental car that he had. He promised to pay it back. Librarians are not rich, and I was pretty typical; first real job, mortgage, and the usual expenses. I did not hesitate. ‘Of course’, I said. And so ended this rather vague first meeting. One thing, however, was certain. I liked Jim Christy. This vagabond fellow was my kind of guy, and I was sure our bookish relationship would continue.
Through my work at the Grey Collection at Auckland Public Library, I came to know Sir John Galvin, a private book collector who lived in Vancouver. On learning that we (my wife Jude and I) were visiting family in Vancouver and Montreal in October 1991, Sir John invited us to call. We did visit, and it was a great thrill to see his private collection of books and manuscripts, which included a first edition Audubon, rare Mayan and Aztec maps, and medieval manuscripts. However, the first day in ‘Van’ was a real Christy day. We arrived at Jude’s sister place in West Vancouver in the early morning and in order to keep awake, we decided to head to town. Before walking to the bus stop to catch the 10 Dunbar bus, I gave Christy a quick call. With no answer, I left a message, saying that we were in town and that we would catch up – somewhere.
The bus arrived, and we paid the fare to downtown Vancouver. We walked to the seats at the end of the bus, and ended up looking twice. There was Christy, sitting at the back, downing a beer. Jokes like ‘you come here often’ and ‘I always catch this bus’ followed. It had turned out that Christy was returning from working as a gardener for an Arab sheik. And I told him of Galvin’s treasure-house in Vancouver. Really? Truly Cendrarsian. I saw much of Christy while in Vancouver, especially at McLeods bookshop. Indeed, another accidental meeting occurred. While in a music store on Seymour (Sam’s?), Christy was there, with a girl called Nicola. We ended up in a Punjabi restaurant for a nosh, and then to Sylvia’s Hotel to hear some jazz. I think Oscar Peterson’s brother was playing. No matter who, Christy likes his jazz. Without doubt, talk on Cendrars, Miller, Hamsun, Powys, and all the others would have continued. And there was talk of our own writings – his poetry and novels, and my books on book collectors.
In February 1996, we adopted Samuel, a 12 day old boy. And Christy arrived in Auckland. He did not stay long at our West Auckland home, realising that it was such a momentous occasion for us. And he was on the job; from memory a commissioned journalistic piece from National Geographic about some part of the country – Gisborne, Napier, the Coromandel. Christy has always been good at this. Somewhat amazingly, he always comes up trumps with a commission that enables him to visit places around the world. ‘Where are you today old chum?’ I often ask in a letter (now email). Burma – doing an article on Indian elephants; Costa Rica – an article on the poor; Portugal – an article on buried treasure.
In August 1997, we visited Jude’s family across Canada: Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. In Vancouver he enjoyed a BBQ at my sister-in-law’s, bringing with him Carmen, one of his girl-friends. She was fun. Christy was still at Gibson, but had an apartment somewhere downtown. One topic of conversation was eccentrics, those out of the ordinary folk with their mad schemes and plans. On leaving Vancouver and traveling to Toronto, I ended up in Montreal, at another of Jude’s sisters. It was a time to relax. One afternoon I turned on the television and found a documentary on the schemes of one Captain Francois Elie Roudaire, who proposed the building of a 120 mile canal that would connect the Mediterranean Sea to a part of the Sahara Desert. This crazy mad-cap scheme was estimated to cost 25 million francs, and involved the visionary ‘engineer’ Ferdinand de Lesseps. I kept watching it, somewhat amused. And lo, friend Christy appeared on the screen; a character witness-cum-expert talking about this mad scheme. Believe me, this sort of thing occurs often with Christy. Over the six or seven times we have actually met, there has always been some strange coincidence; some very strange happenstances.
In October 2002, we moved to Dunedin, which boasts the oldest University in New Zealand. Christy had never been this south before, and his visit in 2006 was an excuse to visit this fine city. Another girl-friend was in tow; Virginia I think. And as he likes his privacy, he booked a hotel in the downtown area; mixing with us at nights. Dunedin’s weather can be variable; super fine one day – dropping to very cold temperatures the next. Christy came unprepared for the cold. I remember lending him a puffer jacket emblazoned with ‘Champion Spark Plug’ on it. It not only buffeted the winds, but he looked cool. A snappy dresser – as he always is. It was also on this occasion that he met my friend Ralph Lawrence, another raconteur and kindred spirit. Christy and ‘Ralphie’ still keep in touch.
In June 2012 we visited Kingston, Ontario. Christy was living on a farm in Belleville, having got Gibson and Toronto out of his system. The latter did, however, provide a closer connection to publishers and readers. I made an arrangement to meet him outside the apartment block of Jude’s father’s in Kingston. I thought the instructions were clear, but obviously not. I sat on the seat outside waiting for him to turn up. Nothing. A no-show after two hours. Disappointed, I knew there were a few bookshops in Kingston that deserved attention. So I headed towards the first on the list. I remember walking into the shop, which was crowded with shelves of books. A large double shelved bookstand stood in the main area of the store, with the owner sitting behind a desk in the corner. Rather than browse (something I enjoy) I asked the owner: ‘I am looking for books on Henry Miller, and Knut Hamsun’. And who popped his head up from behind the bookshelf: Christy. ‘I knew I would find you here!’ he said. We laughed and joked about the lack of communication and mis-directions, and repaired to a local pub for fish and chips and a few drinks. And I bought a Miller book that day: the Hallmark edition issue of The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder (1971). My note in this book reads: ‘Purchased 30 June (Summer) 2012 for C$12.00 in a bookshop in Kingston, Ontario, where I bumped into Jim Christy.’
Somewhere in the few meetings we have had, Christy got new teeth – gold ones from Vietnam. The operation was, according to him, cheap. They made an impression on Sam. One day he awoke from a dream. He relayed that there was a knock at the door of our villa in Dunedin. The door opened and it was Christy, with his gold teeth all a-smiling, and he was holding an axe. Sam did not say what happened next, but he still remembers this Stephen King ‘Shining’-like episode and Christy.
And over the years I have garnered a number of letters from Christy, and books – many signed. Four excerpts from his emails (pencil gone years ago) give the flavour of conversations: ‘Donald. Are you a celebrated author yet? Receiving kudos? Basking in the attention of nubile young (female) fans? If so, please tell me your secret! I had a dream last night that I and my new lady friend (who I've known for 20 years), a half - gypsy singer were staying at your and Judy’s home in probably Dunedin, although it wasn’t like any home of yours I've ever seen. You both were out of town and lent it to me for a few days. You left a wire-haired terrier there and it was starving, (you heartless creature). We went for a walk and saw you and Ralph carrying bags and on your way to the gym. We had a flight and had to leave. Why such a ridiculous dream? What is the significance? Feed the dog! Jim’ (date unknown); ‘I’m in Holguin Cuba....only have a minute on internet.....second trip to Cuba but this time have had more of a lot inside, so to speak. ... Lots to tell...hope we get a chance to meet in person sometime soon........and hope you weren’t effected by the quake....best, Jim’ (3 October 2011); ‘Morocco is old hat, Suva too wet, New Orleans underwater, New Delhi too spread out so I’m here in Ivanhoe (real name). We’re having the same weather you have in Dunedin! Otherwise all fine. I think I mentioned that I had a play in workshop for three nights last Feb. Well it got picked up by a real producer who will stage it next Feb. at a major theatre in Toronto. For me, I suppose it’s beginner’s luck...Just came across the info that Blaise wrote a song for Edith Piaf that she recorded. ... best, brother from Yogi Jim’ (5 November 2011); and ‘I’d like to see a list of the strangest libraries, ones that cater in a fulsome way to esoteria and odd corners of learning. Don’t think I’ll be using the Iowa law library. Spent a few days in jail decades ago in Cedar Rapids. Was befriended by the deputy and his mother. But that’s another story.’ (1 November 2012).
And on the preliminary page of his The Buk Book. Musings on Charles Bukowski (1997) is the inscription: ‘For Donald, I’m sure you will find this fellow to be a worthy role model! Jim.’ While on the back of the below postcard there is: ‘Dear Donald, They’re guarding the vault where the Hamsun stuff is!!! Jim.’
The above is the bare bones of my friendship with Christy, most of it true. I have failed to mention Dave Mason, bookseller extraordinaire; Christy’s turn as poet-singer in Artspace, Dunedin; and the death of the elastic man in the circus. But that, as Christy states, is another story.
Dr. Donald Kerr is Special Collections Librarian at University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand