An Interview with Len Lye

Wystan Curnow's interview with Len Lye took place in New York in May 1978. The text published here preserves the conversation unedited, exactly as it happened.

Len Lye: Tusalava? I shot the goddamned thing. It - you had to turn the crank shaft of the camera, you know, like you turned the old Ford motor. You've got to turn that absolutely evenly. But the fact that you're turning it one exposure at a time - you're giving it one turn with your hand with this handle you've got on the camera, you then put on another cartoon paper and you come back. Well, you haven't got the same rhythm in the turn, so that the speed of the turns fluctuates like mad, and you come out with some - with the final negative - some are overexposed, some are underexposed, they're not very even, see? So, if you're expecting a work of art, technically it's a lot of absolutely dumb cluck. But, it's all right to prove that you did it. It's got those shapes. . . I remember that Tusalava was mentioned in that little book of letters of mine, that No Trouble book. So. Ah, around that time I was living on a barge and I had access to a studio. Also I'd rigged up a table at work - evening work I was doing. And could do all the drawings for Tusalava. It was a ten minute film and there are sixteen drawings to a second, so, you know, it was pretty interminable. So you waltz along trying to get this darn thing done and soon you become absorbed. Now this is the psychological gimmick in this thing: simply that you are so completely and incessantly absorbed with your sense of self in relation to drawing some bloody imaginary grub, the witchetty grub,(1) and you've never seen a witchetty grub so you don't know what the hell you're drawing except you like what you're doing because it seems to have a peculiar life of animation, you know. Grub. This was a - instead of a spastic grub, it was a goddamned drugged grub. It was dopey. It wouldn't move at all half the time. So when I tried to push this grub around with my drawings - you know, finding my way. Because I'd never animated anything at all; I'd just learned how to do it in Australia, never practised it. Just watched the older guys doing it while I did story boards. For Beeswax and chewing gum and things like that. In Sydney.(2) And I would've been doing it in New Zealand if there'd been any cameras around. So. The actual doing - the point I'm going into in this long-winded way is simply that my sense of sound, like any artist's when he's imbued with technically transferring something out of his innermost self on to, into his medium - on to canvas, on to film, - you must be communing with your intuition about significances. Well, I'm saying that's the only explanation I've got for the reason Tusalava was riddled with a genetic polarity illustrative of the life-death polarity. And, on a completely factual plane, it subsequently turned out that all the images I drew are images which have been subsequently found with an electronic microscope. In actual life my witchetty grub was the spitting image of an antibody. And, then, when later in the film this antibody shape, this grub shape, broke in half and one half swallowed the other half, then it developed into a huge; menacing octopus sort of thing with a sharp tongue which stabbed at a something in a cocoon shape, a kind of totem - it was a totem of individuality - I think now - this totem was stabbed at by this octopus - as I thought of an octopus, a cross between an octopus and a spider, if there was such a mating possible - and this peculiar turnaround of the original witchetty grub into a kind of meanacing thing has always puzzled me. I thought, well, I must've missed a cog somehow and my Old Brain, my intuitive self, must've got screwed up someway, until very recently, just about 3 or 4 weeks ago, I came across a long article in the New York Times(3) reporting on the discovery that antibodies sometimes turn into scavengers, and into microphages, and turn on the body and attack it instead of being a protector of the body, see.
Wystan Curnow: Yes, I was interested that even in No Trouble you refer to the images in Tusalava as molecular.
L.L.: No kidding.
W.C.: You do, so that's 1930. So you were already thinking - I mean at the time of doing it, you clearly had some thoughts of its relation to cell-structure.
L.L.: That's right. Without even seeing them, because electronic microscopes weren't around then I don't think. Whether or not they were around doesn't matter because I hadn't seen them. As a matter of fact I only work with the feeling of something magical, something seemingly significant. And to keep it magical I don't want to know the story involved, I just want the hypnotic effect of it somehow seeming significant without knowing why.

The Surrealist map of the world, first published in Variétés 1929

W.C.: One of the things which interests me about Tusalava is that by comparison - from what I can gather from stills, and by comparison with things that come after - you are quite specifically interested in the magic that is there in images of tribal art, such as Samoan and Australian Aboriginal.(4) How specific are the images in those terms, and do they relate directly to Samoan and Aboriginal images?
L.L.: No, they don't. I used to sometime I'll just mention a few points explaining your questions, if not answering it, explaining how I understood it. I understand that you meant: did my stuff in any way, shape or form, copy the icons, the kind of icons, the kind of shapes that the Aboriginal would do?
W.C.: Right.
L.L.: No. All they did they copied the feeling of that thing, . . . and my big sweet in those days was to nail this feeling down. And I would try this for instance, I didn't want my intellect to get into the act at all. I was a movement man. I always relate to my bodily sense of self. My bodily, my muscular, anatomical, bone structure, stress, balance, walking, shifting around. All this stuff was a preoccupation with the bodily sense rather than an intellectualising about it.
W.C.: But you would have looked at a lot of...
L.L.: Now I went to the libraries and I absorbed everything. Not only did I go to books, I went to the real thing and copied them very assiduously, carefully, so that when I got home and went to sleep that night I would put these damn things under the pillow, but first I would look at them very intently, to get back the aesthetic feeling I got out of them originally, when I first saw them and before I began to draw them. So, I had this very accurate drawing to conjure back the feeling. After all, that drawing came out of my innards. So, that sufficed to give you one example. Another example of how I tried to absorb the aesthetic of primitive art is that I would go through a book in the library, very carefully - in the Auckland Public Library, or wherever it was - Wellington was a great help - they've got a very good library in Wellington - making the sketches, I would have some blotting paper, as they would be in Indian ink - for the beautiful colour of the Aboes I would use watercolours - but I had this sketch done in Indian ink and some blotting paper around to blot up any ink spillings or water spillings and so forth. With this blotting paper I would cover any part of the text, or the caption, under the reproduction, cover that up so that I would not see it, would not know what - who the hell had carved that work. All I wanted to maintain was complete and utter pre-occupation with the aesthetic feeling of this stuff. Those are two instances of the many that I practised to absorb the aesthetic of the primitive brain.

A page of Len Lye's Totem and Taboo notebook, early 1920s

W.C.: When did you start looking at such books?
L. L.: In New Zealand. I'd have been about 18, 17, 16, you see.
W.C.: Was there much interest in primitive art in New Zealand then?
L. L.: There was a lot of nepotism to the old Maori stuff. But I wasn't too keen on the Maori stuff, it was over-decorative to me. The tiki is a fantastic image, and one or two others - and the canoes were great - but this overdecorative stuff I didn't go for in those days. I've since realised the great beauty of it as design.
W.C.: So, rather than the Maori, you were looking at. . . ?
L.L.: I was looking at African, and Aboe, and some fantastic Bushman cave paintings.
W.C.: You spent some time in the Australian outback.
L.L.: Yeah. Oh, yeah, but not anything to do with art. That was only to do with ways of paying the rent, and soaking in as much as possible of nature, and exercise, and bodily activity.
W.C.: So you were doing farm work. . .
L.L.: That was a fantastic year of jobs out there. And beautiful. Taking of the wheat to the silos, four days trek across the plains. . .(5)
W.C.: Whereabouts, specifically, was that?
L.L.: In the middle of New South Wales.
W.C.: And it'd be 1921?
L.L.: No, it was 19.. . let me see whether that was before or after I had been to Samoa. No, it doesn't come clear to me. You see, I went back and forth to Australia. I had my twenty first birthday in Sydney, then I went back to Auckland and then I went to Samoa, and then I went to Sydney again. So it was between '21 and '25, because in '26 I landed in England.
W.C.: So what about Samoa?
L.L.: I'll tell you why I'm not very responsive to your question - because I want to clear up this previous thing about copying. I was very very adamant about doing my own original images. And that is only because I'd struck this kind of gooky arrangement of an original idea, about composing motion.(6) I knew it was an original idea because I'd been in the libraries and I hadn't ever come across anybody talking about motion in art. So I wanted to compose motion and that business of originality then hit me. But then I did a right around about with it because I became so imbued - I haven't mentioned yet the fact that amongst my early studies of primitive brain-level imagery or aesthetic - Now, that imagery is sense of self, that's what the aesthetic is about, enhancement, a terrific flood of enhancement they call aesthetic emotion. Now that sense of self was so imbued with the imagery of brain-level prehistoric man through fantastic absorption in cave paintings - at the Victoria and Albert Museum they have a great range of reproductions of wall cave paintings - that was so strong that I got to the point that when I was copying from doodles I didn't know whether I was copying my own doodles or copying a doodle that was some kind of notation in a cave. So I got to the point where I was rather shamed by it, for myself. I was bloody well copying cave paintings? But when these guys, you know, like Cezanne, and everybody, copy Old Masters, I thought, well, who the hell am I to worry about it? So there was that point. But as a rule all my stuff is, you see - this anthropologist, Levi-Strauss, he says that there's no original imagery in art, but Christ let him take a look at mine.
W.C.: There have been other people who have been interested in that path. I mean someone like .Jackson Pollock had looked at Mexican sand paintings, and also doing what is called 'automatic drawing'. The Surrealist thing. Their idea being that doodling can indeed help you back to the old brain - which wouldn't be their term. But they were also looking at American Indian and African art.
L.L.: Yup.
W.C.: Tell me a bit about Samoa.
L.L.: Samoa's a bit of a saga. First of all I got a job. I did a routine - at that time, about '22, '23, I was - I'd been blocked from - a question of means of composing motion. That was my prime interest. What led me from motion was absorption with the body, then absorption with the bodily-oriented primitive brain imagery. To get back to motion required means - I hadn't any. It required means first to have a studio, and to have gadgets which you could swing about, and springs, and motors. A general savvy of manipulation. I didn't have those means; so, I made up my mind to go to a place in the islands which was absolutely the best place in the world, and, just stay there and think about art and eventually do some. Well, I didn't know how, why, where. And this opportunity to get a job in Samoa happened. So I went off to case the place. And every port we got into en route to Samoa - like say Fiji or somewhere, I don't know what was en route to Samoa but, anyway, just little islands, and Tonga I think - I would go into town and ask around if anybody wanted any help because I wanted a job and I was heading on my way to one and if I could get something better I'd come back to it and so on. And I'd let them know and all that. I seemed a nervous little fella me lad. And I got a couple of offers, but I liked Samoa when I hit there, and stayed there. Now I was serving in a shop, a big shop. And as soon as the beautiful Samoan young people, you know, come in, feet hit this wooden smooth floor, and immediately they started just skating on the wood with their bare feet and I was just enjoying this sensuous business, and Christ that suited me, too; because I was a body guy. So, all in all, it was fantastic. And I made a great friend of a son of a chief who worked in the same store as me. I worked in a place called Chisholms. And it came to the point where I'd saved up enough money - and I was a great one at saving money, working half-time and then going off, having half-time to do my own thinking - so I was settled there to do my own thinking. And maybe stay the course of my life. If it was good enough for Gauguin, it was good enough for me. Luckily I'd read all this stuff. How Cezanne didn't start painting till late in life. And 'I thought there was no hurry, and there wasn't any hurry. Because I'm a slow old brain. That worked it all out. It takes time. So, I started asking my friend, Samoan friend, where I could settle down and do a bit of work and do a bit of art work. And then, I wanted to get the hang of Samoan life and that meant that I'd better live with Samoans, in a village, and he's the son of a chief, surely he could do something about helping me along those Iines? He said, indeed. Sure. So he was a terrific fellow, and his father was chief of a village about 20 miles out of Apia - near where they have an airfield now, I believe.
W.C.: You weren't drawing, or anything like that?
L.L.: I wasn't doing a damn thing, not even thinking about it. You know I used to go to sleep with art under my pillow and art in my whole body. I had no time for blondes, or anything. I just got my sex, ah, in a regular fashion, but in Samoa they kept shoving girls at me - fantastic, beautiful things! - but I didn't want to get trapped into any family stuff. So I had a beautiful redhead, the daughter of the Supervisor in the hospital there. So I had this girl.

A page of Len Lye's Totem and Taboo notebook, early 1920s

W.C.: She wasn't Samoan then?
L.L.: No, she wasn't Samoan - she was a beautiful, fresh-complexioned - and, ah, she could look after the contraceptives and stuff perfectly, you know, fine. So, I was just at the foot of Mt Vaea. Vaea is a small village on the ledge of Mt Vaea, near the foot of the mountain, and Vaea is where Stevenson, Robert Louis Stevenson, is anchored down with that tombstone. That went on. And I decided this is absolutely not for me. Christ, if I can't work, I can't be happy. After all, you know, I've been a knee-deep fanatic all my life. And - so, I used to take out - I had my own outrigger canoe. It was a small one. Goolevao had a big one. We used to go out fishing, across the reef, using torches. So I had my little outrigger and I would get through the waves when the combers were not too violent, pullout and paddle over to whatever ship was anchored there. Moor to the handrail of the steps down on the side of whatever-the-hell it was merchant, and toddle up. I had shorts on and a little hat, and I would go up and ask to see the mate. Or the captain. What for? Well, I want to know if you need a hand. Anybody jumped ship? Because I want to work my way to Vladivostok! What the hell do you want to go to Vladivostok for? Well, if you must know, I aim to cross over to Moscow. By the time I get to Moscow, I'll know a bit of the language and there won't be any other way of learn ing that language. So, he said: well, you're out of luck, we're not going to Vladivostok. So, I just went on and on, you see. Every time. But prior to that the administrator, Major General Richardson, called me up and said: you can't live with Samoans anymore.
W.C.: Oh, really?
L.L.: Yeah. We have an edict out. All Europeans with Samoans, back you go. Or else set up shop somewhere on your own, with the whites. Too many half-castes around, and they're causing a lot of racial trouble and stuff. And we don't want to add to the confusion.
W.C.: Was he an Englishman?
L.L.: Richardson?(7) He was a New Zealander. This was a New Zealand administration, yeah. So I said: Sir, you're barking up several wrong trees. One, I'm not running around with Samoan girls, much as I'd love to. Two, I've got people to back up the statement that I am here on a definite study project: Samoan design. And I can give you the names of anthropologists, and so on.
W.C.: You had anthropologists. . . ?
L.L.: Yeah. Ah, there was Captain Hannah, and another guy. I'd been inquiring about Maori folk stuff, and so on. Maori dance I was interested in. And so I was going out secretly to try and get - and I couldn't get - and I came back to Richardson and said: I'll make a deal. Send me to Sydney and I'll go.
W.C.:Good stuff.
L.L.: So from that time on nobody was allowed to go to Samoa unless they had the fare to get back to New Zealand, you see?
W.C.: He did give you the fare?
L.L.: Oh, yeah! They paid for the whole thing. That was the bargain. They were so keen on getting rid of me. Because he didn't like the way I said, you couldn't do a damn thing.
W.C.: You would've, nevertheless, absorbed, even though you weren't thinking about art, you would've absorbed a lot simply by being there. . .
L.L.: Oh, yes. I was on . . .
W.C.: The tapa cloths. . .
L.L.: Yeah, but you couldn't do it because they're so genuinely warm and friendly and humorous and jolly and stuff, that if you absorbed that kind of attitude you'd just absorb sitting-on-your-arse attitude. I didn't want to do that.
W.C.: You'd have seen the tapa cloth. . .
L. L.: Oh, yeah. I think the best tapa cloths are the early Hawaiian. They're knock-outs. Little tiny designs. Next to Fijian.
W.C.: The Samoan isn't as interesting, is it.
L.L.: No, even the Tongan's more interesting. But, they're great, they're all interesting. You see, this is a Samoan thing, (on the wall) it's got a little bit of Fijian in it. Although, I'll tell you what, I have a tapa cloth, which I'm standing in front of, holding some spiral springs which I've pulled out. . .
W.C.: I've seen a photo of that...

L.L.: I'm holding that, and at the back is a tapa cloth and that tapa cloth's got a helix pattern in it and there I am with a double helix! Now that's 'talk about coincidence'. Now that's my life. I'm saddled with one coincidence after another, all the way down the line. All of it relates to this damn genetic thing. As if somebody, you know - as if my old man says: look, you've got some of my ancestral genes in your imagery, twist your head this way, you'll find some more.
W.C.: You said one of the problems about Samoa was that the life was too easy, and you couldn't work. And you were used to working. Um. Now, I am myself aware from reading I've done, of a small carving that you'd done around this time. But aside from that - also I've read of the boxes with pulleys and wheels - but aside from those - they're almost the only things I've ever heard of your doing in the way of art work prior to your going to England. So, what's missing in terms of the account.. . Is there any painting, drawing, um. I mean, when you say you worked hard, I'm presuming you produced. . .
L.L.: Well, it's funny you know. It's very baffling. What I worked hard at was practising for the time when I was ready. I was never ready. I moved around a lot. I couldn't hang on to everything. Somehow I sensed my doodles were valuable to me. Now I know why. It seems they illustrate unconsciously transposed genetic information - DNA juice.
W.C.: You did a lot of studying.
L.L.: Yeah, I - yeah I did some reading, but you know I have a non-photographic brain. If I'm looking at something and want to do an accurate drawing of it, by the time I've left my eyes off that thing and put them on my paper in front of me I've forgotten what the hell it looked like. So I have to look again. Quick! This happens in all my stuff. In reading, you see, I can't absorb the significance; I have to go back and read it again. I can't - the trouble is the Old Brain. I gave everything to my Old Brain, and I rather starved the intellect in the retention of knowledge.
W.C.: Did you keep diaries? Or sketchbooks?
L.L.: No. Yeah, I've got a sketchbook of lots of these. On the one side of my black sketchbook - the school exercise book - plain pages. One side I wrote out everything about Freud's Totem and Taboo. I was reading it. I wrote this out so that writing it would force me to remember what the guy was writing. Well, it didn't work. But, anyway, I wrote it all out. Then, on the other side, to keep it down to my own territory, I would do these drawings - African, or Maori, or whatever primitive brain art I had. So I was gradually filling up this book. I would never write 2 or 3 pages unless I had 2 or 3 pages of drawings on the other side, see? So, I've got one of these books. This is the kind of practice that goes on. Now, with that sort of practice going on, you've got no time to go ahead if you've got no studio, and no means of doing anything for manipulating gadgets, see? But you're keeping your brain sharp. Now I would go to a movie. See this fabulous Papuan film. Captain Frank Hurley. An Australian documentary. Long before Grierson and people. He did this Pearls and Savages film.(8) I go there and come out absolutely enthralled. Because here are the guys that I'd really paid homage to, you know: dancing, and strutting around with feathers and God knows what and so on. So, I would get this bright idea: film! That's how to control motion!
W.C.: When did you first think of that?
L.L.: When I was about 17. 16 to 17. 15 was when I started with motion. And I was. . .
W.C.: That was at the back of your mind to get into eventually all along? I've no idea, let alone now, of what it was like then, the kind of contact you'd make, say, with Aborigines in the outback. I mean, did you see. . .
L.L.: Oh, no. I didn't see any.
W.C.: You didn't see any Aborigines at all?
L.L.: A half-caste Aborigine working on the farm, named George. But I didn't. . .
W.C.: So you never saw any ceremonial...
L.L.: Oh, no, no. A film of. . .
W.C.: What about in Samoa? There would've been ceremony and dance. . .
L.L.: Oh, yes. That'd be terrific! But I never learned to dance till I was in my late 20's, say 1927 or 8 or...
W.C.: Really?
L.L.: No. Because I'm stiff-jointed. Or something. I go to put on a coat and I can't get my arm back into the bloody thing because it won't go that far.
W.C.: Not when you were 20!?
L.L.: Well, that's not stiff-jointed from old age, or anything, Some people are double-jointed, well, I'm less than single-jointed. It doesn't matter. That's got nothing to do with it. I don't know where the hell I got my sense of motion from; I think it's from my brain. Because everything I did, everything that happened to me, was all conducive to adding to my Old Brain capacity. And I went with it. I didn't fight it. If I'd gone to university or something I'd be fighting my Old Brain to try and get my New Brain passing all the grades and stuff. But I didn't have to go through that malarkey. You see, that was another lucky thing. And I've had endless luck of that sort of being able to develop my old, primal brain. You know, as the brain stem to the body it's beyond intellect. It's like why the horse won't drink at that trough no matter how much you want to get him to do it.
W.C.: One of the things that's always astonished me, is your idea of going to Moscow. I mean it strikes me as a beautiful idea, considering what was going on in Moscow then. What astounds me is that you knew enough at that time and in New Zealand and Australia at that, to think of going. I'm surprised the information even got through to you. How did you come across. . . ?
L.L.: Well, that's simple. You see I used to work as long as I could, get good money, and when I thought I'd accumulated enough, now was the time to get back to art, go to the libraries because, ah, that's how I found out what was going on internationally. That's how you learn that the Meyerhold Theatre was a knock-out. There it was, this kind of work which was Old Brain enough for me to recognise that this was where I could operate.


W.C.: This is pretty contemporaneous, right? I mean, even now, in New Zealand it'll take more than 12 months to get a book I see here (New York) into the library.
L.L.: I owe endless - my development - to the libraries. In Auckland and Wellington. And then in Sydney, and finally Victorian and Albert in London. And, of course, the British Museum in London. I used to get enough out of the Victorian and Albert to learn more about art . . .
W.C.: What kind of publication would be concerned with the theatre in Moscow at that time? There's theatre mags, dance mags, Time, etc. . .
L.L.: Well, I don't know. Just the ordinary mags. Well, I used to, you know, go to the library and look up the index card, and it has a lot of footnote stuff on other sources - derivative things - and I would get those. Also old anthropological. papers, you know. Dusty and just something turned out which somebody wanted to get on paper. They didn't want to produce it, publish it, they just wanted to get it on paper. Then they would shovel them off to the Victoria and Albert Museum and you'd go there and find some marvellous things about Bushmen folklore and myth, and stuff. For instance, you'd find a thing like: What is it roads for me? There they are standing up hills. This would be a literal translation of an Australian Aboriginal. You'd find things like that. Well, this is magic: what is it roads for me? There they are standing up hills? What roads? That stand on hills? Where? That's great!
W.C.: Well, let's see. Eisenstein was also at work - would you have known anything of that?
L.L.: Yeah, I would. But that wasn't my purpose because motion in film - you're right, it should have - but back to Samoa. When I had my job at Chisholm's, Robert and David Flaherty were on another island, the bigger island Savaii, shooting Moana of the South Seas.(9) And I was there at the same time and they would come wandering into the shop, and I was film crazy. I wouldn't mention a thing. Because I was so - I was one of those very quirky rebellious-type people, I didn't want any part of the whites, you know. And I thought that was a lot of crap, that Moana of the South Seas. Just photographing how you eat an egg, or some damn thing. What the hell's the point? And, ah - so I didn't want any part of them. At this other place, a guy who was a trader - he had a boat, a marine diesel thing; he used to ply back and forth to the islands. I used to see him occasionally for just a chat. And when I went there to say hello to him one evening, David Flaherty was there and - I've since met David and like him very much - he's pegged out now - so's Bob Flaherty - and David brought out a cigarette you see, and I had some matches and I offered him a match and he took no notice of it and just got out his own, you know, and left me hanging there. I felt rather stupid. I left after that. I thought, I can take a hint, you've got business to talk with this guy, OK. I was very sharp. I didn't know any of the customs amongst the Samoans - which hand you held your kava bowl with, what you did. I sensed the right thing to do. And there were a lot of right things to do, you know. Without being told, you can sense it. it's like a poker game, you get great satisfaction out of just sensing the right thing, the right move.
W.C.: Did you get any idea of the mythological stories? The Samoans had. . .
L.L.: No. I was interested in them - I enjoyed some' of the customs, absolutely beautiful customs. For instance, if you're feeling a little lonely, or a little kind of neglected, all you did was get a fantastic effort into making a nice present that would please somebody or other. You see. So you give them that. Well, they're immediately stuck with the obligation of giving you something back, see? They had little customs like that which - You can't go wrong!
W.C.: You mentioned Totem and Taboo. Were there any other books, of a theoretical kind, which interested you at that time?
L.L.: No, I quit on Totem and Taboo because it didn't give me a thing. No matter how much I scratched into that book, I just couldn't find any inspirational or educational, or anything else to help me about understanding how to dance, or how to do motion.
W.C.: How to do it.
L.L.: Yeah, because I wanted descriptions of primitive dances. That's why I waded through that thing. But it was also puzzling - intellectually puzzling - what the hell the guy was talking about.
W.C.: He's also, there, interested in the 'Old Brain' in one sense.
L.L.: Oh, he's interested in the Old Brain on sex. Yeah. Christ, we're all interested in the Old Brain on sex! But that's not what 1 was after in that book. W.C.: Maybe we can... you're talking about dancing, and it's obvious you like jazz. And you named your son, Bix, after one of the great jazz cornetists. Of course, that's a music which is very body-oriented, dance oriented and breath oriented. Was that an interest you picked up in Britain or. . ..?
L.L.: No. In New Zealand. And then in Australia. See, it was an affinity with jazz, number one, has fantastic resonance; as you say, it has the personal tonal quality of breathing, it's very distinctive of the particular player, his identity stamped on his piece of music.
W.C.: It's individualistic. . .
L.L.: And it's Old Brain, at the height of creativity. It's got - but over and above it all, why I was finding rationales for being crazy about jazz was simply because it had so much to do with happiness, the expression of intensely felt verve. Which was just a joy.
W.C.: Can you remember what sort of bands you heard on race records in New Zealand?

L.L.: No. Ah, just the regular early ones, like Armstrong, King Oliver and Ma Rainey and stuff. And now and again you'd get an Hawaiian, a Tahitian, French Decca used to turn out once in a while. Some musician must've gone over, you know. Worked out a busman's holiday by saying: Now, look, there's some fantastic bands down in Tahiti. I think you ought to send me over. Just for the sake of the ride, he'd go. But he'd come back with some beautiful things. I'd get those in England. But I'll give you an instance of my life with records. I'd heard that there were some good African records in Africa House. This came about because a friend of mine, Ivor Montagu, who produced with Hitchcock, was going to do a thing with Rider Haggard's - Paul Robeson in the lead - and he started to rummage around and he found all sorts of African stuff which might serve as background, or be of use to whoever was doing the music.(10) So, I learned about these and I didn't have much money but what money I could rake together - 20 pounds or something, - I decided I'd buy everything in the goddamned place. That 20 pounds would cover it. Well, it certainly wouldn't. They had a room full of records. Stacked in little shallow cardboard cartons - 10" stuff - tier after tier after. They must've had thousands of records. Now, apparently, they went to Transvaal, to Kenya, to this, that and the other, - every possible part of Africa. And they did this. Old 78 speed. Amazingly marvellous records! They were technically beautiful! So I went through - to make my money last - I could see I'd only get, oh, one hundredth of what they had there-I went through everything! I took about two weeks. I came out at night with my eyes bugged, and my ears shot. Bloody headache. Stagger home. Go to bed. Get up next morning. Get another go. See? OK. All those records were stolen from me when I landed here. Yeah, there was a trucking strike on and they stayed around the Customs and someone must've just taken the whole crate, not knowing what's in it. I often wondered if I'd ever hear them on radio, but I haven't heard them yet. But I should think you could go there again and they'd still have those records. What the hell would they do with them?
W.C.: You started dancing when you were nearly thirty?
L.L.: Well, I learnt when I went up one of the canals, right in the middle of England. I knew Eric Kennington and Alan Herbert - Sir Alan Herbert, MP, writer, and so on, Punch man, and Eric Kennington, the sculptor. And Kennington very marvellously had given me a little tiny corner of his studio where I could put up my animation and drawing desk and just draw away. He was well off, and I suppose felt obligated to help somebody. So he helped me. And then, they thought they'd do even better. Because I was always on for-where the hell can I find a shed, or something, I can work in and not pay any rent? That was my big idea: to be a kind of caretaker who'd pay his own rent by keeping the place warm and whatever. The message got over. And they said, we've got this old barge.(11) It's in good trim, actually. It's a little narrow barge. It's an old-fashioned thing, narrower than most of the barges. We've got this way up one of the canals, and it's just rotting away. Damp, and soon. Why don't you go up, take a good mechanic and get the motor running, and come on down and we'll moor it alongside the wharf here. Ah, certainly. So I went off with a young fellow and his friend, a guy named Bert Tappen, and Bill somebody or other. Bill was a young fellow. Fair haired. Very live guy. And we had great fun, coming down. We had a phonograph and records. And Bill took me under his wing, to show me the Black Bottom and the Charleston. Well, I'm damned if I could get the knack of it. I couldn't relax at the right time, and stuff. And I ended up dancing with a chair. Dancing with this bloody chair on the roof of the ark. It must've been some sight to see me going down the canal. With the farmers, or the pubs and whatever. look out the window and see a guy dancing with a chair. So, by the time I got to London I could Charleston, I could Black Bottom, I was really in the swim because that was the Roaring Twenties and everybody had parties every night. You walked from Hammersmith to London, or Chiswick to London - it took about two hours, but you didn't think about it was a nuisance to have to walk, you know, and you did because you didn't have any money. Fantabulous! And you had all these Charleston and Black Bottom parties to go to. You couldn't go wrong! I've still got strong sinews, you know, just from that kind of stuff.

W.C.: To records?
L.L.: Records. Oh, I preferred them to an English live band. But when I came here they discovered some old Dixieland trumpeters and jazz bands down in New Orleans, brought them up to New York, and boy! When Ann and I got together on those, we danced every night of the week including Sunday afternoon. That was a good, sweating, three-hour, session. That's energy.
W.C.: Do you want to take a break?
L.L.: Yeah, that's a good idea.
W.C.: I mean, I'm loving this, but it's work for you.
L.L.: No, no. It's time you had something to eat. Look, it's about half past two pretty nearly. I could give you something right now, or we could go outside for a break.
W.C.: Let's go outside for a break. How did the connection with Robert Graves come about?
L.L.: Well, after I'd been in London, I grabbed a little room to rent in Chelsea. I smuggled my carvings, which I did in Auckland - marble and terra cotta - I did some terra cotta and so on in Sydney, you see. I went from Sydney. I got the ship's papers off a fellow named Tom Harris. You paid 5 pounds and bought his papers from him. He was going to jump ship, and didn't want them anyhow. But you can sell those things, so he sold them to me. And I got his job. He was a trimmer on the liner Euripedes. That's a White Star Liner, 22,000 tons. So I got this job. I took aboard with me a wooden case, that had my sculptures, my belongings and everything. Because I had heard about Brancusi wasn't allowed in the US. . .(12)
W.C.: So you knew about Brancusi in Sydney. . .
L.L.: Oh, yeah. I tell you, I got it right from the library. I knew about the Futurists, I knew about the Fauves, I knew about everything that was going. That's why libraries are an absolute cinch for kids. You've just got to have them if you want social evolution. How the hell are you going to get it evolving? So you start where the other guy left off, in evolution. So. I smuggled in my stuff. I waited till all the other people - we got paid off, I didn't jump ship in London. I fulfilled what's his name's, Harris's, assignment by getting back to London. It was holy hell on that boat, because all the coal was soft and it all shifted about in a storm - 22,000 tonner, that's a helluva sized boat, White Star liner - had a list and we went very slow. It took nine weeks to go from Sydney to London. And there I was sweating, shitting bullets! You know, I only shat about twice the whole trip? You just sweat it all out. Fantastic! And you had great corns on your hands.
W.C.: You were shovelling coal, then?

L.L.: Shovelling bloody, goddamned coal. Sweating it out. Because the stoker used it up faster than it could be brought to him. The ship had a list, and all the planks to go on to get the rotten coal had a slight slant to them, see? And you rolled, you went right off that goddamned plank with the iron barrow full of bloody dusty coal, you know? Just dust. The damn stuff. Soft coal. So you're smothered in, breathing this dust. You're scrambling. You hope to hell your shin is still there because it feels as if your leg's been cut off when you hit the edge of that steel wheelbarrow. And these stokers and trimmers were crying with frustration, just cursing and crying with frustration - it was just murder. So, anyway, you get into London. The trip took 9 weeks.
W.C.: You had this crate.
L.L.: Yeah. I went out and found the guy with the horse and cart. There was a van, kind of covered in canvas, van. Just the usual four wheels. Short little van. And I made a bargain with him for five bob: would he take me through the gate with my crate. He said, sure. So, you go back, get your crate, get another guy to help you down with this crate, and this guy waiting with the horse and stuff, and you put it into his van, pull the van canvas over it, and the cop tells you to - what you got in there? It's something to do with an assignment of something. So the van man is really my cover man and he smuggled this stuff through. There was no need to smuggle it after all. But I was playing safe. You go up and you say: Well, I'll make it extra if you'll take me down to Chelsea. So, it is a helluva long way. So, then, I get him to wait on the corner of the street while I go around and look for a room to rent, you see? So I find a little room, and he helps me into the room with this bloody great crate. Then I go around all the people I knew: Frank Dobson, Epstein, and - whoever the hell the others were at the time. Sculptors, see? So I would take along my little hunk of marble, my little tiki that I had, and you go and say: I'm from New Zealand, I've always admired your work, and one thing and another. Of course, they're tickled pink, and they give you a cup of tea. You tell them you need a decent room down Chelsea or something, and what do they reckon, and so on. This was Chelsea, but I wanted to get out of Chelsea and its art stuff. I wanted to get where, you know, I could just settle down and work.
W.C.: That was the idea about going to London? You thought you'd have a fair chance to work in London?
L.L.: That's right. Same as you come to New York. So, as I've told you about the saga of learning to dance on the ark, the monkey barge. I think it was called a monkey barge because it was a narrow, slim thing. Couldn't swing a monkey round in it, cat or whatever. So. I got this barge. Then, Eric Kennington and his wife Celandine would occasionally bring down people. And Robert Graves was a great friend of Eric Kennington's. Kennington's the guy that did the portraits that are in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. And they would bring down these guys: Lawrence, Bernard Shaw - all names, you know. Of course, Robert was in the name bracket. And I met them all and couldn't care less about it all, you know. I was pretty wild and woolly. And then I started to make these Batiks because the studio (of Kennington) was right next door to a place called Footprints, and Footprints made printed fabrics on the William Morris principle of home crafts and one thing and another.
W.C.: I was interested in that because there's mention of scarves in the letters in No Trouble, with designs on them.

L.L.: That's what all these things stem from I've got on the wall right here. That 7 x 10 thing there was about the second one I did. The original is a dye-resist, wax-resist technique. It was just like regular painting, other than that you could define your edges better with wax. I used to get gallons of gas. It was called benzine. It was a white gas. I used to get gallons of that and pour it over this wet wax stuff, cotton or silk material. And to put your hands in this absolutely froze you to death. Have you ever done that? Put your entire arm in gas? Feels as if it's falling off. Petrifying! Well, luckily I didn't know how volatile it was and I wasn't smoking at the time. Luckily I never lit up a cigarette by this stuff. The whole wharf would've gone up. One Swooosh! you know. So. That was all going on. The tide would go up and down and - there'd be a 24 foot drop in the tide. Helluvadrop, you know. You're sitting on the muddy bottom. And I think all the associations of the primeval river and mud and tidal activity and moon, magnetic forces and what the hell else, is cooking right there. We were right by a little island, called Eyot island. The whole setting was so marvellous, no wonder I hit on this kind of evolutionary depth in the composition of this painting Land and Sea. You know I got to my genetic forebears somehow in it. Anyway.
W.C.: The print shop was near where the barge was?
L.L.: You put your leg over the concrete wall - it was only thigh high - and you're right in the backyard of the print shop. And Mrs Pike ran it. She had a flock of lovely girls, but they were all country-type and I don't like country-types. But awfully nice people. That kind of kindness they dished out to me. I haven't seen evidence of it here. Got no time to be kind, go out of their way to be kind. In my time in England, everybody was kind. You know? You could go in and be welcome. And you could talk about any of your problems and you'd get advice and help. Fantastic. Unbelievable. I was born fairly lucky.
W.C.: You didn't find the English stand-offish?
L.L.: Oh, no. Not amongst artists. Frank Dobson sent me - they'd send you to other people, see? Frank Dobson sent me to Betty Muntz. Betty was a sculptor. She sent me to Kennington. I clicked with Kennington. I could've gone on and on, till I clicked with someone. They don't ditch you. Because there aren't a lot of panhandlers. Now you're so sick of panhandling and people hiking, bumming rides. And you've got so much stuff, your own routine, to accomplish, and to finalise, that you can't be bothered with other people's problems. Look, here's an instance right now. I've got this little studio right here. I should, out of thanks for my own luck, make it available to everybody who wants to come into town. But I don't. I'm a greedy, selfish bastard. I say, no. I've done my share. I'm just bloody well playing it possum from here on in. And that's what I'm doing. It's swinish of me and everything, but that's the way I've been conditioned for the last ten years or so. There was a time when nobody particularly took advantage of you. We were all diffident, like you New Zealand guys you're a diffident bunch of guys, really. Nobody asks this, they just say: Oh, fine, barn. And you do the washing up, and you get .the laundry and you clear up the mess after them. You find that you are entertaining them, and you're cleaning up their mess and so on. Instead of getting on with some work. And it's all very lovely and that, but not if you want to get something done yourself.
W.C.: Were there artists in England whose work really interested you, whom you met?
L.L.: Well, you know, I always felt separate. Always felt separate from university guys entirely. I used to think, if I had to go through what they have to go through, I'd be dumber than they are. Because they don't seem to have any savvy about what to - So when Ben Nicholson, you know - I met him through Robert Graves, because he was married to his sister - said: why don't you let me nominate you for the Five and Seven Society? And I said, you bet. So, that was done. But can you imagine that goddamned thing - one of the first things I showed - up alongside what Ben Nicholson and other people were doing?(13)
W.C.: Yeah, it's always struck me as odd.. .
L.L.: Yeah! It struck me as odd, see. But it didn't seem to strike them as odd. As a matter of fact, Ben Nicholson gave me a painting, and was always after one of mine. But I didn't have any to spare. I had to sell them to live, see.
.W.C.: You did sell a number?
L.L.: Oh, yeah. I, ah, sold about five. Four or five. Dye paintings. And I lost a couple myself through boiling them to wash them, instead of dry cleaning them. And a friend of mine the same thing. Put them in the goddamned boiling water! It was only dye. Bloody thing wasn't fixed all that well, and the dye came right out.
W. C .: Did you do them with dye because that was handy?
L.L.: Yeah. Because that was handy. You didn't have to spend anything - just buy the silk or canvas or muslin, and paint away and collect your five pounds. That was twenty bucks. That would last me three weeks. You could buy a cod's head for two pennies, and that would last you about three days, plus bones for the cat. I mean in a cod's head there's a helluva lot left on the shoulder. There's great big compact hunks of elliptical meat on the cheekbones of this fish. And then you've got the innards of the head and stuff, and you boil 'em up. No, you've got some solid stuff there. Fantastic, beautiful meal.
W.C.: What about Graves? And Riding?
L.L.: Well, Riding was a fabulous personality. Rule the roost kind of person. Absolutely fabulous. And she had a knack of making everybody feel that they were superior to everybody else. Except me, I didn't. I didn't like feeling like I felt when - Once she had that kind of feeling going in her crowd of five or six or seven people or so, her kind of social gang, they produced magazines and articles, Seizin Press, quarterly kind of survey - and they were all printed on beautiful paper - Well, once she got everybody feeling they were superior to everybody else, they all had to seem to gravitate to her, to have it proved by her.(14)

W.C.: How did Robert fit in?
L.L.: Laura brought him a lot of points of view he would've never got otherwise. And he was very grateful for them. Because, after all, a poet is interested in these fine points, that Laura would bring up. And I must say she made a helluva rigmarole about it, and made it all very interesting. But not for me. I had my own rigmarole. Holy Smoke!(15)
W.C.: .Graves has long been interested in the myth kind of thing. Old Brain stuff, right?
L.L.: Yeah, but he'd got into it - he was half historian about it. Wasn't purely it.
W.C.: Half scholar?
L.L.: I should say scholar, yeah. He approached it in a scholastic way. But he recognised I had it, and I recognised that he had something about what I was into. Wasn't the same thing, but he sensed - and right to this day - when we saw him in '68 he said: we're the only two myth men I know. You see? He would say to me: Len, I don't know what it is, how it is, that all these years nobody's grabbed hold of you, put you on their shoulders and carried you round and round. I said: Thank Christ. I know what it is. They don't know what it is. You see?
W.C.: Would you talk a lot, you two?
L.L.: Yeah, but in this peculiar. . .
W.C: But there was always Laura?
L.L. No, this was '68, that conversation. Laura had long since gone. And - If she hadn't been around and I hadn't come across such a person I would have wondered what all these bloody California movements and so on were all about. Now I know what they're all about, they're all about somebody like Laura getting in there and dictating health and happiness and being a bloody dictator and hypnotising everybody, and everybody doing everything that is suggested under hypnosis - it's kind of a mass hypnosis. So she hypnotised this bloody bunch, but not me. Because I hate being hypnotised. I hate being drugged. If I can't control me rigmaroles. . .
W.C.: But you hit it off well with Robert?
L.L.: Oh, yeah. Oh, God, we were real - he, ah, once in a while commissioned me on something. For instance, he commissioned me to do the jacket for Goodbye to all That. And he commissioned me to do those Seizin Press covers. I got paid for it. I knew if ever I was broke I could get five pounds off Robert. I never got any loans off him, but I knew I could. And whenever they were going out, they made a point of dragging me along, too. You see? If they were going up to town, to get a good steak or something, or going up to Maidenhead to have a swim, or going to whatever they were going to, Oxford or somewhere. If they were in a little four or five group they would make sure that I came along. I was a complete wild maverick, you know. I was dressed any which way. Well.
W.C.: Did you read Robert's poems? Did he look at your paintings?
L.L.: Yeah, well. I don't think anybody knew what they were about, nor did I. All I knew about them was that they hypnotised me. That's all I could care for. I was anti-poetry. I thought poetry was a lot of romanticised junk. I'd got this feeling as a kid, coming across Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and that level of maudlin stuff. So, then when I found it in Longfellow and others, see, I thought: Oh, this is not for me. And it wasn't until, having met Robert, that I started to get interested - and Riding - again in poetry because here were these two sensible people immersed in poetry. And that I'd overlooked something and I'd better find out what it was. Then I came across Hopkins, and some other stuff. And sat back and realised there was something really going on.
W.C.: T.S. Eliot at all?
L.L.: No, he was too intellectual for me. No, I needed the Hopkins magic-stuff. I'm trying to think now of all the people I settled for. Yeats I thought was pretty good. But the greatest thing - set me back - was Norman Cameron's translation of Rimbaud. Boy! By Hogarth Press. Were they the something that I could reach! You know, Rimbaud is a visual - his images are all visual.
W.C.: And he's very sensuous.
L.L.: And the terms, and then the translation, was the most vivid kind - each word was as if it was cut out of marble. Not cut out, incised. It was projected, you know. Terrific words. And the immediacy of the meaning. I woke up. But I was always starved for music. I don't think we're going to get any music that I'm going to like until we get back to figures of rhythm. Like I heard when I went down to Africa House and went through all the records. Then I heard some real music. I know we've got to get back to it because the other stuff you were talking about this ideational art, conceptual stuff. Well, that's how our music is, too. And it's always been like that. Cage is a very good example of it and without being surrealistic. Pierre Boulez is a very good example of it. It's just an intellectual level operation. What we need is the body into the act. Drums have got a kind of body resonance to them that nothing else has. I think it's the heart quality of resonance - as distinct from your bloody skull resonance, you know. These guys are banging their marbles about in their skulls.
W.C.: We ought to bring it back to No Trouble. The impression I get - which comes from a book which maybe you don't know called Published in Paris. I may leave you' a xerox of the relevant pages. The guy who wrote it obviously has talked to Laura Riding. The impression I got there was - fits in with what you were saying about her. It was her idea that you do No Trouble?
L.L.: Oh yes, that's right. It was her idea.(16)
W.C.: She read the letters you'd been writing and said, well, we should do a book?
L.L.: That's right. Whereas Robert wouldn't ever have thought of that. But he would agree immediately because - that's where she was right. She had those penetrating ideas, analytical capacity on anything. Some of it would hit, some of it miss. As far as I was concerned I knew my stuff had a quirky arranging of the grammatical structure - enough to take along and show her, see?
W.C.: What was her response?
L.L.: Her response was: you'd better start saving those because we're going to do a book of them. I mean, immediately; like that.
W.C.: And were they edited then? Were they extracts from letters?
L.L.: Yeah, I think she edited them. I think she smoothed 'em out a bit.
W.C.: The final choice was her's you think?
L.L.: Yeah. I think she could claim responsibility for whatever merit was in them other than the forming of some of the quirky structures.(17) Mind you, if I was blocked in any way, suddenly blinded, say, I would start with words. I would. I like the play of words. But it isn't on one of these regular hemispheres - you know there's two hemispheres to your brain - some of it is in touch with the Old Brain, some of it is only in touch with the factual side, logic and so on. So, having learnt to subdue the factual side of my hemisphere, to make it subservient to the old, emotional side, , could use words which are supposed to be on the factual side - , could use words and have them sieve through the old. You know, 'do this doodle - I can doodle in any medium. I can doodle with words. The time for me I found to doodle best with words is after supper, or after I've had a swim or - I know the times of the day: you get the mood on and you know you can now muse with words.
W.C.: One of the things that comes through in No Trouble, that seems evident in the letters - in their letter form - is that they are a doodling to somebody. In other words, you are talking to someone.
L.L.: No, no. That's wrong. What it is - sometimes it would be that - but the majority of times, it's just a do it, and after you've finished then, you know, who would best like it? So you just put, Dear Celandine on the top, or Dear Ann, or Dear Jane.
W.C.: The letters were all to close friends?
L.L.:Yes. But 'would be communing to somebody in general. I want somebody to read this, , don't know who it is. All right? When you've finished, now you know who you want to read it.(18)
W. C.: So the process of language itself takes over?
L.L.: That's right. Once I'm impelled to mess around I don't know what's going to happen. I pick up a band of steel, one end - the rest lying on the floor - and just whip it. Whip it up and down. And, OK, it undulates like a snake. I look at that. I think, well, 'could have something hold the end, a mechanical device, and animate it and make it flip just like my hand did and then I'd have a sea serpent or something.
W.C.: I remember your doing that on television the bit with the saw blade - in New Zealand, right?
L.L.: Ah, well, that's right. Well, I call that doodling.
W.C.: This is just in passing, but it completes a bit we talked about before. There's an article on film that's co-authored by Laura Riding and you in Epilogue(19)……… .[pause to change tape]
L.L.: How about a little beer? A Guiness or something?
W.C.: No. I'm fine. , don't think we'll go on very much longer.
L.L.: No, you haven't got much time. Look what the time is: six to five. And we've got a big party on tonight. They want us there at six. If we don't get there they'll have the booze drunk. And everybody lined up with various girls, there won't be a bloody chance.
W.C.: I guess what we were talking about when it switched off was this colloquial aspect of the writing. Which I like. One of the things that's happened with modern writing is the much greater interest in writing as speech. Your writing seems fresh in that sense. Because it is colloquial. It's the living language, the language which is in the mouths of people.
L.L.: I'll tell you, I could speak that stuff better than I could write it. Because people who have any kind of propensity for that zig-zag, back-to-front type verbalising try to rule it out. I had the propensity for speaking that way. I was only too delighted to let it go full out and romp away to its heart's content. See?
W.C.: You like talking?

L.L.: I like talking that way. Because people would start to interpret it, and you could see the pleasure on their faces of getting the hang - not pleasure, you see the interest in wondering what the hell I was talking about, or sorting it out, unravelling. But - and I couldn't write it as well as I could verbalise it - but what broke the spell, and twisted me around the other way and ruled it out - I can still write it now, but I can't speak it - and what broke that spell was when I started to try to write about happiness. And I tried to write about what made things tick - in relation to freedom, democracy, creativity, and what not. Because I could never find anything at all that meant anything at all in the ideological view-points. Although I went scratching around looking when it got to all this Nazi stuff, and they started cutting off the heads of everybody in Russia whom I admired. Loused up one eighth of the human race, really loused them up. I mean, the Russians had fantastic creative depth, and in one swoop they blocked it, murdered it, killed it all. So, when I wanted to get into that thing, for my own sake and nobody else's. To find out what really made sense about all that stuff, I began to try to verbalise like an editorial. It was such a sweat. And the ideas were so abstruse that I went through bloody goddamned hell trying to verbalise that stuff. And at last I could. When I finished the thing to my satisfaction in 1953, I thought now, for the first time I am going to try it on professionals in the area of philosophy. Where most of it is Symbolic logic, but you can get by with logic by definition. My stuff was all defined. So, I got Robert. So I sweated this out, and at last I got my three factors, which I termed: individuality, happiness and the present. And then I sent it to Robert and said: see if this makes sense to you. He wrote back and said: it makes sense, but the bloody writing is just disastrous. let Beryl and I sort it out, put it into good English grammar and whatnot, and see how you like it. He did, see? I said: delighted. So, he did that. And then he sent that to a friend of his who was managing director of Time magazine at the time, Tom Matthews.(20) Tom says, the day that he got it, he said: Holy Smoke, I'm sitting next to Wilkie tonight. I'll give it to him. So he gave it to Wilkie. You remember Wendell Wilkie? One world, see? One world. And this was about that stuff. So. But it gave a philosophy for a One World. Wilkie says - writes to Tom, and says: where can I get hold of this fellow Lye? Tom says: write to him. Here's the address. So Wilkie wrote and said: I would like to have a talk with you if you're ever in our country. This that and the other. This was wartime and I only had to say to Wilkie: where's the visa? I said: yes, one of these days it would be very nice to meet you. I wasn't aware of the kind of significance of this stuff, you see. This Wilkie, this big wheel stuff. And so then I got an offer to do a feature colour film in Italy. The Allies were going up and the air hangars were available now for propaganda. Winston Churchill was a propaganda guy at heart. Del Guidice, I mentioned, had just had all sorts of triumphs with Henry VIII and Richard III and he wanted me to do a film based on the first book of Genesis. He had the 'book' already written and he had the music, which was written by Milhaud. And he wanted me to do the technique, which would be based on Rainbow Dance. Well, I said, I'll do that, if you let me do my little philosophical thing first, with Wilkie. And he said: no. I want this thing first. I said: OK. Well, I went back to the guy who had fixed it up.(21) He said: just take it. Get the coin and do it. You'll be able to do anything you want with the kind of money you'll make. At that point I got commissioned from The March of Time to come over here.(22) And I said, well, I'll be right next to Wilkie. And I came over here and I was committed to do the work for March of Time first, and I was - and then I saw Wilkie. It was all set. He loved the idea. He was going to be Master of Ceremonies, with Stalin, Roosevelt, all these guys - the French guys, and everybody saying what the hell they were fighting for, what was Freedom all about, and they were going to show it to Stalin, and get him to say, well, I agree with it here but I disagree there and this is what my vote is, so that they would all edit their own stuff so that it was really what they meant and then we would show this philosophy, you know, take the best of the whole lot. And Wilkie got strep throat. But I have the letter.
W.C.: What about the MSS?
L.L.: Oh, I've still got it. The one that he sent to Tom Matthews, you mean? Yeah. It's called Individual Happiness Now.
W.C. You don't have a spare copy?
L.L.: No, I must get that xeroxed. I came across it the other day. I've got a lot of stuff. All these happy moments, you know. I've got these excerpts from letters that I've kept. That's where I've been so lucky! I've had nothing interfere with me. I've just gone along. Meandering here, tributary there; this, that and the other, getting on down to the big, old ocean. Boy! and I'm almost there, it's terrific!


1. The witchetty grub totem is shared by Aborigines of the Emily Gap area near Alice Springs who believe men to be direct ancestors of the grub. See Roger Horrocks: 'Len Lye's Figures of Motion', Cantrills Filmnotes, 31-32 (November), 1979.
2. This company, run by Garnet Agnew, made advertising shorts for cinemas. Since there has been some confu-sion about Lye's film activities in Sydney, specifically in regard to 'direct film', I later questioned (in a letter) him further. He replied:
'The Sydney 'direct film' experimenting consisted of seeing scratched leaders projected on the screen at the agency. . . and liking the effect and getting an inscribing scriber, and making my own scratches and liking them, and staying behind after work and running them and remembering this later...' (letter dated 12-1-79).Lye's recognition that something might be made of these experiments awaited developments in his drawing and painting which took place in the late 20s and early 30s.
3. 'Multiple Sclerosis Death may Yield Clues to the Workings of the Disease', New York Times, Wednesday, March 15, 1978.
4. Lye's youthful interest in this work reflects, among other things, his awareness of contemporary art, for several of the Cubists acquired African and Oceanic art objects, as did several Dadaists and Surrealists after them.
5. Lye associates his sculpture 'Grass' (1945) with memories of Australian wheatfields.
6. Compare his earlier comments on copying and 'making this very accurate drawing'. Existing examples of his drawing suggest his 'doodling' does not pre-date his arrival in London. It is worth noting that between 1925 and 1927 Miro and Masson began to paint 'doodles' and that 'automatic drawing' was described by Breton as a leading characteristic of Surrealism in his first 'Manifesto' of 1924. The influence of cave drawing is quite clear in Lye's paintings of the mid-30s.
7. New Zealand annexed Samoa in 1914. Richardson was Chief Administrator from 1923 to 1928. His treatment of Lye seems typical. During his term of office he brought New Zealand authority into disrepute and the Samoans to the point of outright rebellion.
8. Pearls and Savages was shown in 1921. 'One must assume that the enthusiasm for the film expressed by Lye (and other critics and writers) in the early 1920s was partly due to the novelty of seeing PNG life (architecture, masks, body painting, dances) on the screen, and partly to Hurley's presentation, complete with coloured segments, (both coloured slides and hand-painted film sequences), recordings of Papuan music and Emmanuel Aarons' orchestral variations.' Andrew Pike, 'New Guinea Notes' Cantrills Filmnotes, November 1979, p.21.
9. Moana (released 1926) followed Robert Flaherty's famous Nanook of the North (released 1922). A lightly fictionalised documentary it is distinguished by its attention to tapa making and tattooing as well as for innovations in the use of film stock and camera movement. Flaherty was on location for some eighteen months which more or less coincide with Lye's stay. It is tempting to believe the trader mentioned here was Felix David, the son of a Prussian officer who lost much of his mana when his renditions from Wagner were replaced as a source of local entertainment by the movies the Flahertys brought with them. He was charged with seducing Samoan boys and banished in 1924. Lye would have met the Flahertys again in England in the 1930s. See Arthur Calder Marshall, The Innocent Eye. London, 1963, pp. 98-120.
10. Many of Lye's films feature jazz or blues soundtracks. See also his article, 'Notes on a Short Colour Film', Life and Letters Today, vol. 15 (Winter), 1936, for some comments on jazz. Lye was later to use African drum music for the soundtrack of Free Radicals (1958).
11. This was a flat-bottomed canal boat and lye lived on it from 1927 to 1930. It was known as The Ark, and Herbert had acquired it so as to explore some of the old canal routes. He wrote his best-seller, 'The WaterGypsies' (1930) around the experience.
12. In February, 1926, the Wildenstein Gallery in New York held a one-man show of Brancusi's work. Works of art entered the United States free of duty but because U.S. Customs had classified the Brancusis 'manufactured metal implements' they became subject to a 40% sales tax. When the artist was billed $240 on the sale of a 'Bird' in Space' he took the Customs to court. The case, which was eventually settled in Brancusi's favour, was still in litigation when lye arrived in London.
13. Lye's retrospective astonishment is surely attractive but there had to be good management as well as good luck. Within a year of his arrival he had proposed to the London Film Society that they give him a grant to have a crack at making a film, and he had made friends of some of the most talented and advanced young writers and painters in Britain. That has to be a tribute to both his own emerging talent and his taste.
14. See T.S. Matthews, Under the Influence, Recollections of Robert Graves, Laura Riding and Friends. London, Cassell, 1979; and Julian Symons, 'An Evening in Maida Vale', London Magazine, January, 1964 pp. 34-41.
15. It is hard to underestimate her influence on Graves at this time. Laura (Jackson) Riding was then, and remains, one of the most interesting and underrated literary minds of the century.
16. See Everybody's Letters, Collected and Arranged by Laura Riding, London, Arthur Barker, 1933, pp. 231-253 for an account of her belief in the importance of letters. Aside from this compilation there was also The World and Ourselves, London, Chatto and Windus, 1938; and a magazine of letters of the mid-30s called Focus, both of which she edited.
17. Again, Lye is too modest. In discussing her editing of the books she and Graves published at the Seizin Press, Laura Riding has said: ' . . . only one had no assistance from me of textual improvement (that of Gertrude Stein), and only one but an editing to clarify sense with least interference with its definitive personal style (letters of Len Lye, the film-maker, written in a forcefully economical speaking mode peculiar to him.)' Chelsea, 35, p.189.
18. 'I once used to train my Old Brain to forget every day grammar and jl!st let its word arrangements fall where they may, don't allow New Brain to come in and sort them out. Part of the training was to write a letter to noone in particular and if it was quirky enough, send it to someone who would maybe not mind reading it. If you word doodle after supper, you'll find that after a week or more, you will begin to develop your very own idiom, as a succinct way of speaking, your own kind of fingerprint stuff in your word arrangements. In any case you'll get a kick out of it because your wits get sharper, sharper at the awareness of the succinct stuff: (From the tapelsl ide programme, Words, Len Lye Foundation.)
19. Film-making, Epilogue I, 1938. Riding also wrote an important pamphlet, Len Lye and the Problem of Popular Film, London, Seizin Press, 1938.
20. Matthews was in charge of the London bureau at the time. His version of this story is told in Under the Influence pp. 231-36.
21. Dallas Bower.
22. Richard de Rochement commissioned Lye to do a series of instructional films on Basic English with I.A. Richards for The March of Time. Lye moved to New York in 1944.

The illustrations that accompany this interview are from doodles, often undated, made by Len Lye throughout his life. Many can be recognised in their later incarnations as paintings, films and sculpture.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 17 Spring 1980