A memoir by the ex-wife of legendary beatnik poet David Mitchell
I had long known about David’s infidelities and like many women in such a situation I had decided to turn a blind eye to his womanising. I also knew that he had a fascination with the bizarre and darker side of human nature and indulged in the seedy side of life if it was on offer. I didn’t ask too many questions and didn’t want to know what he got up to, but now he started urging me to have lovers too. At first it seemed incomprehensible that I could enjoy being with other men but when I had my first lover, a young and sexy poet who lived in half a room, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the experience and stayed with him for over a week.
David was spending long periods in the attic at College Hill and writing prolifically. Many people were starting to encourage him to think about bringing out a collection of poems. His poetry collection Pipe Dreams began its long and difficult gestation. The intensity of this work made David highly strung and he headed for the pubs and more parties to unwind. I became a nervous wreck, lying in the dark disturbed and listless, dreading his return. I didn’t respond to him with much erotic enthusiasm and more and more I gave him the cold shoulder when he wanted intimacy.
fabricates her little / lost moan / & he
groans to hear it
We both had affairs. I fell in love and was rejected and things got worse with David. I thought of going home to Denmark. When I told Dave one evening on the way home from the pub he shook me hard and begged me not to leave him. Frightened I pulled myself free and outran him all the way up Victoria Street West to our flat in College Hill. He caught me halfway down St Marys Bay Road where he landed me with a rugby tackle outside the nunnery. I screamed for help, the nuns came streaming out, a car stopped. David was soon on the ground alternately begging for mercy and cursing the nuns as “whores of Christ.”
A week later I was on my way to Copenhagen where I spent the next 18 months. But Sara missed her dad and having weathered one Danish winter and with another looming, the bright images of the Antipodean sunshine and azure coastlines fringed with yellow sandy beaches started welling in my mind with disturbing frequency. A letter arrived from David. “Now I know it was so wrong for you to leave,” he wrote. “I simply must have you back!”
Before I agreed to come I wrote David a letter, stating my terms:
must give up boozing
give up fucking other women
save money for a deposit for a house
must save her own and Sara’s fare back to NZ
pay for Danish furniture to be sent
will have no other lovers
I arrived back in Auckland to discover David was having an affair. It’s one thing to sleep around, a good friend told me. Everyone is doing it. But to have ‘serious’ affairs is a different matter. I was in no doubt about the importance of this relationship when I heard the name my husband had given his new lover. Spicy. I was resentful and started treating David with disdain for asking me to come back under these circumstances. As I had long since realised the dissatisfaction of casual sex, I resolved instead to pursue the lover I had fallen for when I was last in Auckland, an intriguing man who lived on a boat in the harbour. The affair didn’t last and after a week of island-hopping following a night in a storm and nearly drowning, we went our separate ways.
David loved dressing up to go out, putting costumes together as his moods demanded. In summer he often wore white suits simulating a southern writer at a picnic. But his favourite look was faded blue jeans with a striped French sailor’s t-shirt and a pair of running shoes for agility. Sometimes he went all the way with a red bandana tied loosely around the neck and a French beret worn at an angle.
Around this time many people started experimenting with LSD. The dilapidated mansion at 10 London Street overlooking the Auckland harbour was an ideal place for group acid trips, with its three floors of winding corridors and stately stairways, its wrought-iron balconies overlooking the wide lawns and gardens below where children and adults alike played. Many people got their first taste of the new psychedelic drug in this roomy house. David and I were also involved. These times were peaceful and without drama and I started nurturing hopes that the wonder-drug would cure David’s excessive bouts of drinking.
“They are burning the children! They are burning the children,” I screamed as I lay recovering from a bad case of alcohol poisoning. I’d only taken one sip from the bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag at the party but that sip of homemade spirits had been enough to put me in a near-coma for the next two days. A smell of leaves mixed with burning rubber reached me in my distressed state on the third afternoon as I was starting to become aware of my surroundings again. I was convinced that I was in the middle of a war zone and witnessing the burning of innocent children. Very little around me made sense and it took Barry [Lett, art dealer] a good deal of talking to convince me that the smell came from next door where the neighbours were burning rubbish.
The small enclosed veranda at the front of the cottage was David’s study. He went through a period of prolific writing here, punching words into the typewriter day and night, chain smoking and emerging only for meals, coffee and more cigarettes. I liked it when we were at home and all three together in our little cottage; I wanted it to last forever.
I knew the poet Jim Baxter by sight and David spoke highly of him, so when I saw him sitting like a dishevelled St Francis in the director’s chair at Barry’s gallery, I felt suddenly safe and burst into tears in front of him. He closed the gallery and took me home to the house he shared with heroin addicts. Here I slept by his side on a mattress on the floor while he cared for me and talked to me about life and its sufferings. He urged me to visit India to gain a new perspective, which I did a couple of years later. And he talked to me about his dream of building a community at Jerusalem. At the graveyard where he liked to pray he called me “a young tree” bending in the storms of life and gave me his beads to hold while he was praying. Later he wrote about this in his second Jerusalem Sonnet. I stayed with him for a week and went back home when I felt stronger
Because my mind takes fire a little there
Thinking of the woman who is like a tree
Whom I need not name – clumsily gripping my beads
While the bees drum overhead and the bouncing calves look at
A leather-jacketed madman set on fire by the wind.
There’s another party. This time I go because it’s on a beach and we can bring Sara along. I’m not drinking, hoping someone might have brought a joint instead. David says I’m boring and heads for the beach. As he gets to the water’s edge he continues to walk fully clothed into the sea. Soon he’s out of sight and submerged by water. I catch myself wishing he would never come back.
“Look at that madman David Mitchell over there on the rocks! He’ll kill himself,” someone laughs. Now I see him head gingerly back to the party.
“I lost my glasses,” he says when he reaches me.
“Obviously,” I retort bitterly.
“I want to go home!” he says in a thick voice. “Give me the keys to the car. Give me Sara.”
“He’s too drunk to drive and can’t see without his glasses,” I tell Barry. “Help me talk some sense into him!”
But David king-hits Barry, who as always is only trying to help. The last thing I see before fleeing in a stranger’s car is Barry spitting blood and a couple of teeth onto the ultra green grass.
I’d been in Sydney nine months and had gone to the top of the modelling scene again but David wrote to me that he’d stopped drinking and I felt I owed it to us to try again.
There’s a poetry reading at Barry’s art gallery featuring poets Mark Young and David Mitchell. David is not expecting me and is drunk when I arrive late. He is on stage and swaying precariously. I’m sure he’ll fall but he manages to stay upright while he fumbles with the mic. He drops his book of poems and loose pages wing their way to the floor.
“You,” he says pointing the mic at a young girl in the front row. “Have you got any fags, love?”
Eagerly she throws him a packet.
“Thanks darl,” he says and looks at her meaningfully. Another cycle has begun, I think wearily, and as I leave I see him staring menacingly at the audience, ready to begin his performance.
I sit on the bed and weep. The tears keep falling. “Eat,” pleads Barry but I am nauseous at the thought of food. Dave tries hard to make me laugh but my grief is boundless.
under perse skies
‘as a 3 yr old ’
huddled against th earth
for a measure of peace
. . .
my fragile, danish lover
has flowered in our dung
now / has been broken
they have washed her
. . .
sprawled on th grass
my true love lies
exhausted & sane . . .
Dave brings a note on a serviette scrawled in pencil. It’s from Jim and simply says “be happy,” and now I know what I must do. Silently Dave watches me pack and plays with Sara for the last time. I leave for Sydney when he is away teaching.
Forty five years later
When I see David in the nursing home it’s been 20 years since our last meeting and I never dreamed we would sit together holding hands like this again. When I sob he holds me close as if I am the one who’s been struck with an awful illness, and he won’t let me go. When he finally does, it’s to look intensely into my eyes as in the days of old. We sit like an old couple and I marvel at how odd it is that I’ve forgotten how beautiful his hands are. I hand him the rose I bought on the way and he smells it ceremoniously.
We had first met in 1963 in London, where David shared a large old house in Broadhurst Gardens with a bunch of bohemians and eccentrics, all artists or students. I ask him, “Do you remember Broadhurst Gardens?” He nods several times. He’s got pen and paper in the hand that I’m not holding and he writes his answers in that spidery text of his.
His voice has gone. The nurses ask him questions and he writes his answers diligently, still the teacher. One of them says, “He’s really cool.”
“Always was,” I say and rest my head on his shoulder.
A photograph is taken. I’m still teary. And although it’s near 40 degrees in the shade Dave insists on keeping on the woollen gloves Sara brought him from New Zealand. A pretty young nurse wearing her dreadlocks in a ponytail enters and blows him a kiss. He tries hard to flash her the old charmer’s smile then settles down to watch the cricket. “He seems content,” I say to Sara when we leave.
When I see David next I’ll tell him that of course I remember the cold kiss at the end of the cycle but also the time when I said I heard the sea in the cave of his mouth. And I’ll tell him that he was wrong when he thought I might have forgotten, because I never did. We were in bed in Broadhurst Gardens and I lay naked and sprawled across his body. Because I was slightly deaf I kept my ear close to his mouth and that’s when his breath sounded like the ocean. And outside a fine rain began to fall.
The complete, unabridged version of Elsebeth’s stunning memoir is available at the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre. Its setting – the Auckland poetry scene in the 1960s – is also evoked in the new memoir Raiment (Massey University Press, $35) by Jan Kemp, who writes of her affair with David Mitchell. ReadingRoom is covering the book all week. On Monday, there was a review; yesterday, an excerpt; and tomorrow, a feminist reading of Kemp’s memoir.