High Wire by Lloyd Jones and Euan Macleod (Massey University Press, 2020), 96pp., $45
The air up here is clear. High above the clamour of the city and the rush and roar of the ocean, above the islands, the headlands and the setting sun, a solitary figure slouches towards Australia on the single drawn line of a high-wire cable.
In James Marsh’s 2008 documentary Man on Wire, a New York bystander, anchored to the footpath by a heavy coat and bags of shopping, wept as she watched the impossibly frail figure of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit walk, kneel and wheel on a cable drawn 411 metres above ground between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
That was 1974 and the tears still make sense. There is a compelling beauty in the single figure balancing on what appears to be the thread of a spider’s web—no harness, no safety net, just the terrible simplicity of foot, wire, pole and faith. Petit, writes Lloyd Jones, was a real artist, ‘able to place his feet in a space where no one else had’.
That space is explored and traversed in High Wire, the first in the new ‘kōrero’ series of picture books ‘written and made for grown-ups’ by Lloyd Jones and New Zealand-born, Australia-based artist Euan Macleod (Jones is also editor of the series). Inspired by the story of Petit’s almost hour-long performance, Jones changed tack from his original single focus on bridges to privilege the quixotic precariousness of his narrator’s tightrope journey from Wellington’s south coast to Bondi Beach in Sydney, from one home to another, from one sky to the other—‘one cool and blowy, the other dusty and hot and filled with bird shrieks’.
Jones’ text is digressive. He recalls his seemingly secretive vantage point from the top of the railway bridge close to his childhood home in Lower Hutt, looking down at the small pinhead people ‘still bound to the earth’. He takes us to the dispiriting bustle and noise of Brooklyn Bridge, to the shifting population of homeless people sleeping rough on the bridge over the Hooghly River in Kolkata, to the euphoric fear and gravitational pull of high places. He traces the ancestry of the bridge, the ‘leaping shadow of a spooked fish’ that paved the old stories of flight and escape; he describes the real and allegorical leaps of faith by Neil Armstrong, Einstein, Usain Bolt. He aligns the construction of a new bridge, launching into space, with the courage of beginning a new painting or a new work of fiction, a journey of ‘progressive naming—between here and there’. In the story of his trans-Tasman traveller, the tightrope becomes a metaphor for the long relationship between the two countries and the several generations of Kiwis who, like Macleod, set out ‘with their hopes and lightly packed suitcases’ to put down their roots in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
While Jones diverts and muses, Macleod holds us to the steady march of the bridge-walker, the high-wire artist. In large single- and double-page paintings and drawings, mainly in shades of black and white, tangle-lined figures stretch and swerve and crawl; haunted faces peer ghost-like out of darkness; single ink-dark figures step through clouds, above headlands, across the night sky. Arms outstretched, shoulders stooped, toes creeping forward. Each step is a tenuous victory over the pull of gravity, the ever-present threat of a moment’s lapse in concentration, an Icarus-style tumble into space.
In the 2019 Moonlight Travellers, illustrator and artist Quentin Blake and writer Will Self explored night-time travel in a fabulous parade of pilgrimage, metamorphosis, mythology and steampunk technology. For that book, Self responded—poetically, lyrically, at times confusingly—to a series of drawings and paintings already completed by Blake. In High Wire, Jones the writer and Macleod the artist engage in a long conversation, each provoking the other, reaching out, edging along this uncharted trans-Tasman pathway between the hills of Wellington and a studio just off Parramatta Road in Sydney. As Jones writes, ‘Over that winter Macleod and I wrote to each other I had the strongest sense that he was drawing his way towards me—back to his homeland and birthplace.’
This is a winning combination and one that, we can hope, signifies future collaborations in this series. Jones is an author with a tendency to peer around corners we did not know existed, to expose an often flawed but identifiable world of human hope and frailty. Macleod’s spectral figures have long stalked the rural and coastal landscapes of place and memory, infusing a known world with a persistent, haunting presence.
Presented in a slim smooth hardback beautifully designed by Gary Stewart, High Wire is a finely crafted mystery of art, friendship and human aspiration.
SALLY BLUNDELL is a journalist, writer and reviewer based in Ōtautahi Christchurch.