How Many Miles to Babylon? (2017)

Olivia Macassey, ed.: brief 55 (2017)

How Many Miles to Babylon?
Three Faces of Mike Johnson’s Lear

Mike Johnson: Lear (1986)

What a huge stage! Spread in all directions and lost in an infinity of indigo and steel. The sky. The sky? What whirling things are these? Are stars a myth? We look backwards into time, don’t we Mainchance, when we look at the stars? … We ride, bare-back, the photon wave; it’s for gamblers, the law of probability. Blind chance.
– Mike Johnson, Lear (1986): 164-65.

The mantric moan of the dying

The locally created book is a measure of
the culture of the country that produced it.

– Mervyn Cull 5/7/86 [Blurb for Lear]

I remember hearing a story on the six o’clock news about a young Russian couple who built themselves a not-very-seaworthy yacht to sail across the Pacific. Their long strange odyssey culminated in a night-time wreck on a rocky shoreline in New Zealand.

As soon as the locals saw something was wrong, they were down there with ropes and blankets and cups of hot cocoa. Little could be done for the boat, which was smashed to pieces, but the couple were soon tucked up warm and safe in bed in one of the neighbouring houses.

That is, until a knock came on the door.

You see, while one group of neighbours was down playing good Samaritan – fighting the waves and saving the lives of the hapless daredevils – someone in one of the other houses was placing a call to the Immigration Services.

Who were these boat-people, after all?

Illegal immigrants, that’s who!

The two young Russians finished off their night in a jail cell.

I’ve always felt that story says something fundamental about the New Zealand character.

On the one hand, there’s the desire to help your fellow man: to be friendly and helpful and go the extra mile for people you don’t know and whom you’ll probably never see again.

On the other hand, there’s a miserable substratum of suspicion and meanness: a genuine wish to make other people as miserable as you are yourself: perhaps with an anonymous phone call, or a poison-pen letter, or just a late night visit to spray-paint their door.

I guess one of the many reasons I so admire Mike Johnson’s marvellous, mythic first novel Lear is the deadpan honesty with which he examines this dichotomy within us.

What is Mike’s book about? Many things, certainly: the innate dependence of a settler culture on pre-set patterns from abroad, cultural blueprints made elsewhere for quite a different purpose, now bent to service in an alien environment; the shifting and unstable identities that result from such mismatched patterns; the role of language in shaping (and inhibiting) individual perception …

Most of all, perhaps, it’s about the need to find a way of talking about a new land on a deep level without resorting to the mere parroting of indigenous names, or slavery to outmoded genres from elsewhere.

The two main influences on the novel are:
  1. Shakespeare (of course): the one-stop shop for any writer composing in English.
  2. Apocalyptic Sci-Fi: in particular the works of Philip K. Dick and (possibly) J. G. Ballard, but really any of the creators of all those end-of-the-world narratives which so dominated the imaginative life of the 1950s and 60s, when Johnson was growing up: The Day of the Triffids, Earth Abides, The Death of Grass, The Drowned World.

There’s something of Joseph Conrad there, too: the upriver journey in Heart of Darkness:
In and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened with slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair. (1988, 17)

Compare that to the first sight of the settlement of Babylon beside the similarly unnamed river in Lear:
A huddle of streets by the river. A filthy main street that leads to nowhere. Shacks that lean in on themselves. Low hills covered by a spiny forest overhung by a perpetual raft of dark cloud. A few urchin faces peering from doorways, the blotchy white of the sickness on their limbs. And, low over the river, the mantric moan of the dying. (3)

By the waters of Babylon

Minds come in different degrees of sophistication … Perhaps one could read mentality into a rumbling car engine in somewhat the same way that people read extra meanings into the structures of the Great Pyramid or Stonehenge, the music of Bach, Shakespeare’s plays, and so on – namely, by fabricating far-fetched numerological mapping schemes that can be moulded and flexed whenever needed to fit the desires of the interpreter.
– Douglas R. Hofstadter, The Mind’s I (1981): 382.

“Not our Babylon” is the first sentence of the paragraph I quoted above. This sets up the clear contrast Johnson needs between the visionary oasis of Lear’s imagination and the actual collection of miserable, radioactive shacks his boat has just reached at the beginning of the novel:
Babylon! Not the city of gleaming spires Lear wraps in silk: a black book falling open at endless markets, winding streets, curving arcades with silver and ormolu roofs sailing eternally against blue. A blue so intense it makes the eye shiver. (1)

This ideal / real dichotomy is basic to the story he is telling: the letter of Shakespeare’s play against the garbled parody of it Johnson’s characters are enacting; the actor-manager “Lear” against his original incarnation as the longshoreman-gambler Mainchance; the mock violence of playacting against the horror of the character Edmund’s actual rapes and murders.
Edmund is insane; that’s why he’s such a bad actor. He only plays himself but he’s not as smart as the Edmund in the play. (14)

But is there some deeper reality behind it? Is it from here?

The first time I read Lear, I felt a shadowy intimation of the mighty Whanganui river as the backdrop for his Kiwi version of Apocalypse Now – perhaps because Hiruharama (Jerusalem) is there, and that reminded me of his “Babylon.” Rereading it more recently, though, I was a little shocked to discover no unequivocal local references at all.

As far as settings go, Mike Johnson could be said to have hedged his bets quite cleverly. His river could as easily be the Thames as the Whanganui or the Wairoa. Why, after all, would an aging new world wharfrat sail off in a boat with a troupe of players?

Which set me wondering about Babylon itself.

There’s no doubt that the name has been chosen deliberately for its cultural resonance: on p.29 we are treated to a long quote from Lear’s “large black book” (presumably the Bible) about “BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH” [Revelation 17: 5].

Nor was the name unknown to Shakespeare: “There dwelt a man in Babylon” sings Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night [Act II, sc. 3], and Mistress Quickly excuses the dying Falstaff from the crime of “handling women” with the observation that “but then he was rheumatic, and talked of the whore of Babylon” [Henry V, Act II, sc. 3].

My own discovery, though, is that there actually is a New Zealand Babylon.

How many miles to Babylon?

How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again.
If your heels are nimble and light
You may get there by candlelight
– Iona & Peter Opie, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1979): 73.

It’s not that it was that difficult to find. Having searched for it online, I quickly discovered three places of that name in the Czech Republic, two in America, and one in New Zealand (setting aside the original ancient city in Iraq, reconstructed for his own glory by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s).

Further details proved somewhat harder to find. I started off by looking for general information, then switched to a search for images. But the pictures that came up showed nothing but empty farmland. They did give me an approximate location, however: just north of Dargaville, on the Kaipara Coast.

This put it approximately 2 and a half hours (or 184 kilometres) from my front door in Auckland. Which sounded like too good an opportunity to miss.

So I set off one morning to check it out for myself.

I’d already asked a few friends if they knew anything of such a place. Stu Bagby, a fellow-poet born in Te Kopuru, just down the coast from Dargaville, said he’d never actually heard of it, but knew from experience that there were a number of settlements in this old gum-digging region which had simply disappeared both from the map and local memory. His uncle might know more, he thought.

Stu himself grew up in a place called Tangowahine, between Dargaville and Whangarei, which has now shrunk to virtually nothing, although it once had a post office and general store of its own. Perhaps Babylon could be one of these old New Zealand ghost towns?

We both knew, of course, that the best person to have asked would have been Kendrick Smithyman, born – like Stu – in Te Kopuru (albeit 25 years earlier). As well as being one of our greatest poets, Kendrick was a mine of historic lore about Northland: it was, after all, his principal stock in trade.

Sadly, Kendrick died in 1995, and – while there are no fewer than four references to Babylon in his online Collected Poems, edited by Peter Simpson and his widow Margaret Edgcumbe, three of them can be eliminated right away. The first, “Appointment in Samara” (c.1944), is set in a kind of renaissance anywhere, as evidenced in the line “So many miles from Zoom to Babylon.” The second, “Serenade” (3/5/53), references “Buda” as its principal place-name, placing it firmly in Eastern Europe. The third, “Holy Trinity, Goodramgate” [York] (15/5/69), refers to the “waters of Babylon” as one of the places where “we all fall down” – “we” being, in context, understood to be the British: in foreign wars “in France, in Flanders, … on the Peninsula.”

In fact, only the early poem “Northern Story” (6/9/51) makes clear reference to a New Zealand Babylon:
Uncouth, nibbling waters limp to spill their valley channels culling gumlands’ brown chips to serve a river’s appetites where shrill blasts push wire and rush. Air freezes any face each early morning puckered at the shed. Bandied, scarred factory iron at Babylon gusts from its studs. Wind and water sail flailing into perdition. (Smithyman, 2004)

Stu’s other suggestion was equally sound. He mentioned how helpful the people at the Dargaville Museum had been to him on earlier research trips up north. So I decided to call in there first.

Before that, though, I stopped for a piece of greasy bacon and egg pie in the main street of Dargaville. Inside the café, there was a spirited conversation going on concerning the recent revelations about the treatment of young boys in Borstals in Australia’s Northern Territory. There’d been graphic footage of some of them being stripped naked and beaten on the news the night before.

There might have been a racial element involved, opined one of the older men. “I’m sure it has something to do with them being Aborigines.”

“I couldn’t do that to anyone,” said the young Asian woman minding the café. “Not even to an animal. Not beating with iron bars.”

It seemed just a little too uncomfortably reminiscent of the world of Lear.

Suitably sobered, I drove up the hill, past the two salvaged masts of the Rainbow Warrior, to the museum itself. Mid-week, in winter, things were a little quiet. I took the precaution of touring through their collection first, hoping to see some pictures or artefacts from Babylon itself. So far as I could see there was nothing.

So I asked the lady on the desk if she’d heard of a place called Babylon. “Yes, I have,” she replied (somewhat unexpectedly). “It’s on the road going north out of town, route 12.”

“You should have just asked,” she added. “You didn’t have to pay to see the collection.”

“Oh no, it was very interesting,” I lied. My father used to drag us through every pioneer museum he could find on our endless summer camping trips around the two islands. There can hardly be a small town whose photos and artefacts I haven’t had to pore over at one time or another. It has, I fear, left me with a certain allergy for the genus.

The Dargaville Museum is, though, to do it justice, an exemplary and very well-arranged collection: geared more for the international than the local tourist trade, with all glitz that that implies.

The Museum Assistant proved very helpful indeed. She drew me a map, told me just where to go to find the Babylon Coast Road (the only relic left of what must once have been a town, but was now, she thought, just a rather ill-defined coastal region), and an estimate of relative distances.

So off I went. And, yes, there it was, on the left, just after Scotty’s Camp Road, a dirt track stretching off into the hinterland.

I’m not especially fond of unsealed roads, after an incident involving a flat tire and a lot of hassle on a not dissimilar quest to Tomarata (setting for the eponymous Smithyman poem) some ten years before. It seemed a bit absurd to come all this way and not even explore the place properly, though, so down it I dutifully drove.

Only to find nothing. Or nothing in particular. There were beautiful pine woods; some crystalline tarns; green, fenced-off fields; even one or two SUVs disputing the way with me from time to time.

It goes on like that for 20-odd kilometres, until it reaches the holiday hamlet of Omamari, from where one can turn down to Baylys Beach. As an alternative to that, though, one can also connect up with the tar-sealed road to Kai-iwi lakes, and thus get back onto the main road.

And so I did. Without incident. After which I turned round and drove back to Auckland.

So, yes, while it is a bit more than three score miles and ten there and back, it’s certainly a round trip which can be accomplished by candlelight – i.e., in less than one day – should one so desire.

Why bother, though? There’s nothing much to see.

Two texts of King Lear

In all but one of Shakespeare’s plays the revisions are local – changes in the wording of individual phrases and lines – or else they are effected by additions and cuts. Essentially, then, the story line is not affected. But in King Lear the differences between the two texts are more radical … the sum total of these differences amounts, in this play, to a substantial shift in the presentation and interpretation of the underlying action.
– Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, “General Introduction.” William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (1986): xxxv.

I well remember the excitement when Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor published their Oxford Shakespeare in 1986. There were a number of innovative features in it: their decision to present a performance rather than a printers’ version of the plays, for a start; the attempt to present the plays in chronological order, rather than in the more familiar categories of Comedies, Histories and Tragedies; the description of many of them as collaborations rather than sole-authored works; the revisions in so many names: “Falstaff” with its (conjectured) original, “Sir John Oldcastle,” for instance; and – last but not least – the inclusion of two separate versions of “King Lear,” one based on the Quarto text of 1608, and the other on the First Folio version of 1623.

Wells and Taylor contended that the first of these versions, which they entitle “The History of King Lear,” was based on Shakespeare’s original manuscript, or “foul papers,” of the play as he “first conceived it, probably before it was performed” (1025). They believe that the many differences between it and the Folio text, which they call “The Tragedy of King Lear,” are due to a substantive revision undertaken by the author for his theatre company’s promptbook “probably two or three years after the first version had been written and performed” (1063). In other words, that rather than simply conflating the 300 or so lines present in the Quarto but not in the Folio with the 100-odd lines in the Folio but not in the Quarto, future directors (and readers) should see the two of them as significantly different imaginings of the play. A follow-up volume on the subject, The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare’s Two Versions of King Lear (1987), co-edited by Gary Taylor, included the essay “Fluctuating Variation: Author, Annotator, or Actor?” by New Zealander MacDonald P. Jackson.

I was taught by Mac Jackson at Auckland University. I don’t remember whether this particular point of the two versions of King Lear came up in his lectures (though it probably did), but I certainly recall the mystique and intensity surrounding Shakespearean studies in the English Department there.

No doubt it was a manifestation of my own unreconstructed cultural cringe to place so much stock in this endorsement of the scholarship of my own little country by the heavyweights at Oxford University when I first started reading the new Shakespeare in the late 1980s. I was, after all, recently arrived in Britain, on a Commonwealth Scholarship, and everything I thought I’d learned up till then seemed suddenly in question.

As time went by, I learned to pay less attention to where people were from, and more to what they were actually saying, but it was still nice to feel that at least some part had been played in this great discovery (if it was a discovery, that is: some would call it a wild conjecture) by our grammarians back home.

What a coincidence, though, that Mike Johnson’s Lear should have come out in Auckland at the very same time – hand-set by Warwick Jordan on his own printing press, which accounts for many of the misprints but also much of the strange beauty of the first edition (if it’s been reprinted since then, I have to say that I’m not aware of it)!

But was it a coincidence? There was something very particular, almost palpable, about that fascination with Shakespeare at Auckland University in the 1980s.

We’d all studied Shakespeare at school, of course: even read King Lear – but I can still call to mind the weird intensity of Professor Ken Larsen as he stood there lecturing on the arcane significance of the Fool in Lear, his status as a prelapsarian being in a play which can be seen to re-enact almost literally the Fall of Man. It was as if these men – Jackson, Larsen, Michael Neill – had a secret, and much of that secret was bound up with Lear.

Did any of that atmosphere rub off on Mike Johnson, as he sat in his shack on Waiheke, letting himself go for the first time as a writer (as he once told me), rejecting all the models of what he should write, and instead letting the deep speak unto his deep?

Who can say? I wasn’t there. It might all be in my head. Certainly the details of my encounters with Shakespeare, and with the mysteries of his text, are my own, and unlikely to be precisely paralleled by others.

What I mean to say is that however particular these Shakespearean, Lear-related associations of mine may be, something like them must have been re-enacted in literally hundreds of small towns, provincial capitals of ex-British colonies, settlements in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Rhodesia, South Africa – or, for that matter, other parts of Africa: Kenya, Nigeria; not to mention Guyana, Jamaica and the myriad islands of the British West Indies.

Plays such as The Tempest arch over many of the great writers who’ve grown up in these places: over Wilson Harris’s Guyana Quartet, over Derek Walcott’s’ “The Schooner Flight.” What we’ve learned to recognise as a Shakespearean exuberance of language rings out in many of these post-colonial (I’m tempted to add post-canonical) sites.

The originality of Mike Johnson is, however, his determination to go directly to the source: to the very text itself, rather than its reverberations and influences (unlike, say, Jane Smiley in A Thousand Acres, her clever re-situating of the play in the American mid-west).

The point of King Lear for Mike Johnson is that it is – on the one hand – a text as ubiquitous and immediately recognisable as the Bible or Homer; on the other, that it can be used to encode a secret, more personal, but no less valid, set of signs.

The “far-fetched numerological mapping schemes that can be moulded and flexed whenever needed to fit the desires of the interpreter,” mentioned in my earlier quote from Hofstadter’s anthology The Mind’s I, can be used not simply to read scriptural history into the measurements of the Great Pyramid, or (for that matter) anagrams of the name of the “true” author of the works of “Shakespeare” into the texts of his plays, but also (it would appear) to deconstruct the underlying texts of an entire culture.

This, at any rate, is the scope of ambition behind Mike Johnson’s first novel.

Ghost Towns of New Zealand

Cordelia organises it all with an authoritative calm; out of heaped boxes of clothing a wardrobe and make-up space appear, two tents arise; out of lumps of timber and cloth the stage takes form; the lanterns are carefully hefted into place; Edgar is despatched to the forest for some branches. Order and purpose spring into being and things gravitate as if by magnetic force to their rightful place.
– Mike Johnson, Lear: 37.

Having made a first attempt to track down New Zealand’s “Babylon” – with a couple of trips back up that way to take photos and confirm certain details – I found references to it beginning to pop up wherever I looked.

For instance, my friend Scott Hamilton’s blog Reading the Maps supplied one in an interview with the daughter of photographer Gordon Ell, author of what Scott refers to a “psychogeographic study” of New Zealand ghost towns:
In between asking me questions about South Auckland and the Waikato, Sarah remembered childhood expeditions down Babylon Coast Road and other routes into the ruins of the gum and goldfields of Northland and the Coromandel.

Further examination of Ell’s 1988 book New Zealand Ghost Towns and Glimpses of the Past reveals no direct references to Babylon, though he does remark that each of the ephemeral gum-digging camps on the Northern Wairoa (inhabited mostly by “Yugoslav refugees from the dying Austro-Hungarian empire”) had its own name:
Those on North Kaipara head near Dargaville included Scotty’s (200 men), Jerusalem and Welcome, the latter both on the same farm. (26)

Journalist and local historian David McGill’s Ghost Towns of New Zealand (1980) supplies some more concrete details:
The most intensive [Kauri gum] digging was around the Wairoa River. … There were settlements of diggers at Tucker’s Flat near Matakohe and at the Ru Point area close to Raupo, while the short distance from Dargaville to Bayly’s Beach included Scotty’s, Jerusalem, Kennedy’s and Welcome. … poor Babylon above Dargaville is [now] down to eight people officially, despite having once yielded three tonnes of the stuff from one hole, dug out by Dick Matutinovich and Andy Botica. [173]

He also includes, on p.174, a map which “indicates that Flaxmill and Babylon had their own [railway] stations, despite the fact that Flaxmill was eventually absorbed into Babylon.”

What is one to make of all these overlapping fragments of information? Was there some kind of mill or factory at Babylon? Certainly that would seem to match best with those early lines of Smithyman’s: “Bandied, scarred factory iron at Babylon / gusts from its studs.”

If there ever was, it isn’t there now. The Wairoa and its numerous tributaries continue to criss-cross the landscape between Dargaville and Whangarei, however, in a manner distinctly inviting to river-boats such as that belonging to Johnson’s itinerant company of thespians.

Three Faces of Lear

Eve Black: Don't you want to get me one?
Ralph White: Well, I've never seen you take a drink before.
Eve Black: Honey, there are a lot of things you've never seen me do before. That's no sign I don't do 'em.
The Three Faces of Eve, dir. Nunnally Johnson (USA, 1957)

One might object, of course, that going in search of an imaginary town from a Science Fiction novel – with only the most tenuous reasons for suspecting that its author might ever have heard of this presumed “original” – sounds like a rather tenuous research methodology.

Did Mike Johnson know that there had once been a “Babylon” on the Kaipara when he chose that name for his imaginary village? I don’t know. I haven’t asked him.

Even if he had, would it make much difference to the nature of the novel he dreamt up: that strange mixture of courtly erudition and intense, provincial ignorance? Not directly, no. His larger point would, I’m sure, remain valid in either case.

Why bother to go and look for it, then?

I suppose, if I were to be honest, that the impetus for this quest – and the larger study of “Speculative Fictional” landscapes within New Zealand which it forms a part of – is largely supplied by its paradoxical nature. The “reality” of the tiny village called Babylon in Mike Johnson’s novel (what one might call the First Face of Lear), is opposed quite clearly, in context, to the dream-like imaginings of “Lear” himself (Second Face):
“Listen, Mainchance …”
“Don’t call me that.”
“But I …”
“I am not that.”
“But Mainchance, I …”
“Gloucester, I am Lear; petulant, aging monarch to some nameless kingdom.” (111)

But the larger purpose of the novel itself, I would argue, is to present us with a simulacrum of the complex ways in which our imaginations insist on writing us into language (Third Face). Lear is all about levels. As its eponymous hero complains:
“Even at the best of times a player’s existence is a precarious one. The play is our only vehicle; it has been like this back to the time of the Bard himself. The play is our source and sustenance; if you pollute it, Edmund, what will the rest of us eat?” (57)

King Lear has become far more than just another Renaissance play for us far-flung children of Empire. It underlies the paradox of our existence: the deracinated flotsam and jetsam of colonial expansion rubbing shoulders with those we’ve worked so hard to displace. As Edgar puts it, wandering through the nightmarish forest surrounding their temporary stage:
I wonder if the para-beings can hear me. Hear me think. The creatures that take human shape and prefer warm, living flesh to corpses … here in the forest with its shadows falling across his shoulders and the human world receding, it occurs to him that the forest and its creatures are part of a reality lying alongside, but not exactly continuous with, his human reality. Another dimension that interpenetrates the universe he walks and breathes in. (46)

The “automobile wheels” of my Holden Barina, as they compile their psychogeographic map of the barren spaces of Babylon Coast Road, are surely as good a way as any of interrogating the underlying patterns of this strange existence of ours?

But why King Lear? Why that one play in particular? It is, I suppose, about the usurpation of authority, the trampling down of innocence. Those are, to be sure, universal themes – but just as The Tempest seems to speak more directly to Caribbean writers such as Walcott and Naipaul more than the other plays, so the unjust confiscation of authority (for which read sovereignty, or – more simply – land), and the pitiless disregard for such hapless victims as the Fool, or Cordelia (paralleled strangely throughout the play), have a particular meaning for us, I fear. We live in the superficial sunshine of Goneril and Regan’s kingdom: our callousness disguised as order, our ruthlessness as common sense.

Mike Johnson’s Lear sets out to dramatize this wound, this fundamental instability within us, not least in the shifting personal pronouns employed by his narrator / character Curan as she hides from horrors she’d like to blame on Edmund, rather than the rest of the (complicit) cast:
Curan burrows deeper in to the floor of the forest. I am a burrowing creature, a being of fern and moss, a creature of twigs and leaves. Look at me and I vanish before your eyes. I am one with the dirt, and my home is here among the blind burrowing creatures. I can breathe with the trees, send my roots down deep into the warm places of the earth, exhale the mineral breath of rock. (175).

Works cited:

Conrad, Joseph. (1988). Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text; Backgrounds and Sources; Essays in Criticism. 1899. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. 1963. Third Edition. A Norton Critical Edition. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Ell, Gordon. (1988). New Zealand Ghost Towns and Glimpses of the Past. Auckland: The Bush Press.

Hamilton, Scott. (7/5/16). “The City of Words.” Reading the Maps. [Available at:]

Hofstadter, Douglas R., & Daniel C. Dennett, ed. (1982). The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul. 1981. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Johnson, Mike. (1986). Lear: the Shakespeare Company Plays Lear at Babylon. Auckland: Hard Echo Press.

McGill, David. (1983). Ghost Towns of New Zealand. 1980. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed Ltd.

Opie, Iona & Peter, ed. (1997). The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. 1951. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shakespeare, William. (1986). The Complete Works. Ed. Stanley Wells & Gary Taylor. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Smithyman, Kendrick. (2004). “Northern Story.” Smithyman Online: Collected Poems 1943-1995. Ed. Margaret Edgcumbe & Peter Simpson. Auckland: Mudflat Webworks. [Available at:]


brief 55 (Summer 2016-17): 113-31.

[4986 wds]

brief: The other New Zealand literary journal

Issue 55 Supplement: How Many Miles To Babylon:

How Many Miles to Babylon?
Three Faces of Mike Johnson’s Lear

"Did Mike Johnson know that there had once been a “Babylon” on the Kaipara when he chose that name for his imaginary village? I don’t know. I haven’t asked him.

Even if he had, would it make much difference to the nature of the novel he dreamt up: that strange mixture of courtly erudition and intense, provincial ignorance? Not directly, no. His larger point would, I’m sure, remain valid in either case.

Why bother to go and look for it, then?

I suppose, if I were to be honest, that the impetus for this quest – and the larger study of “Speculative Fictional” landscapes within New Zealand which it forms a part of – is largely supplied by its paradoxical nature …

– Jack Ross

The following is a colour supplement for Jack Ross‘ essay, How Many Miles to Babylon? which appears in brief issue 55. All photographs: Bronwyn Lloyd (5/8/16).

Mike Johnson: Lear (1986)

Mike Johnson's dystopian SF novel is set on a waterway described only as "the river," in a tiny settlement called "Babylon."


Scaffolding at Tangiteroria, on SH14 between Whangarei and Dargaville.

Northern Wairoa River

Northern Wairoa River

The upper reaches of "the river" - at Tangiteroria.

The view

The view from Tangiteroria, looking towards the West Coast.


A prototype for Babylon? The tiny settlement of Tangowahine, on the way towards the coast.

Wairoa River (Dargaville)

Funnily enough, the Wairoa River was always referred to simply as “the river” by the inhabitants of the Kapipara. Here it is at its widest, looking over towards Te Kopuru.

Babylon Coast Road

The sign is on SH 12, 6 kms north of Dargaville.

Babylon Coast Road


Babylon Coast Road

Storm clouds coming over the hills from Babylon: the former gum-digging settlement down near Baylys Beach.

The full text of How Many Miles to Babylon? Three Faces of Mike Johnson’s Lear by Jack Ross appears in brief issue 55.


The brief blog: [available at:].

[157 wds]

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